Monday, April 20, 2015

Woodland walk along the river Tees that J.M.W.Turner trod 200 years ago

This is the view of the river Tees from Abbey bridge near Egglestone, on a tranquil spring day. When the snow melts in Upper Teesdale this becomes a raging torrent, roaring through the rocky gorge. 

The woodland on the steep banks of the river here is exceptionally beautiful in spring, carpeted with wild flowers. Last week wood anemones were the star of the show; next week the bluebells will take over.

Fallen trees are left to gently decay and often develop their own 'garden' of flowers as they rot - like this one with a flora of wood anemone, ramsons and herb Robert.

Last week the bluebells had just begun to flower but it will be early May before the tree leave canopy begins to close over them. The fully-grown trees are mostly sycamore and oak.

The path winds through a dense carpet of wood anemones, high above the river.

Wood speedwell Veronica montana

When we arrived there was still a chill in the air and dew on the leaves, so the wood anemone flowers were all nodding downwards ...

..... but by mid-morning, as the sun climbed higher in the sky, they turned to face it.

This wood anemone had purple leaves.

Some early wild cherry blossom, hanging over the river.

Wood sorrel, nestling against a moss-covered tree base. The leaves fold down at night, like triangular tents.

Beyond the woodland the path passes through pastures, with ground ivy Glechoma hederacea flowering in the shelter of a dry stone wall.

Last week the first influx of warblers arrived, with this willow warbler and blackcaps singing

Last time we passed this way the elms were just coming into flower. Today their clusters of seeds were well-formed.

A bee-fly, a parasite of mining bees, sunbathing in a clearing.

Crane-flies mating.

A comma butterfly soaking up the spring sunshine after a long hibernation.

In 1816 J.M.W. Turner must have walked this footpath and perhaps sat somewhere near here to sketched this scene, at the confluence of the river Greta and the river Tees, which he painted in 1818. I like to think that perhaps he sat under this ancient oak, which would have been more youthful then, to view the scene, which you can see in his painting by clicking here.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Nuthatch home improvements

We spotted this nuthatch, busy working on a nest hole in an old oak tree, when we were out walking in Teesdale last week.

Nuthatches usually nest on tree holes, selecting one that has a slightly larger opening than they need and then partially blocking up the hole with mud. We watched it make several trips down to the edge of the river Tees to collect the necessary building material but ....

.... it also came back with water and then seemed to regurgitate it as it entered the nest - you can see droplets hanging from its beak in this rather blurred photo. I suspect that what it was doing was softening the mud that was lining the entrance but had dried in the sun, because then ....

..... it entered the nest hole and then squeezed out again through the muddy aperture ....

..... using its body to mould the perfect size of entrance hole.

Thursday, April 16, 2015


Today's Guardian Country Diary is about the return of marine life to the Durham coast at Dawdon, where coal mining waste was dumped onto the beach until Dawdon colliery was closed in 1991. An underwater survey by divers at that time found half a metre of coal silt on the sea floor at Noses Point (in the background of this photo) and water that was so turbid that it was impossible to see any marine life.

Since then the Turning the Tide campaign has cleaned up the beaches, to the point where this beach was recently described in the Guardian as one of the best lesser-known National Trust beaches in the UK 

Click here for more pictures and information about the restored coastline here.

Meanwhile the waves have done their work offshore, washing away the coal spoil, so now it's a beach where you can go rock-pooling again. We found this shore crab amongst the rocks near Noses Point. The pointed abdomen under its body indicates that it's a male.

Catching a shore crab took me back to childhood rock-pooling days, and learning to pick up an angry crab between finger and thumb on either side of the shell. That armoured carapace protects the crab from predators but prevents it reaching above its shell with those powerful nippers. This method of holding them works well with shore crabs but from painful experience I've learned that this is less successful with velvet swimming crabs whose nippers seem to be better articulated and can reach back to deliver a very strong pinch. 

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Mining bee ID?

This little bee was clinging to the washing when we brought it in from the washing line yesterday evening.

At first I thought it was the tawny mining bee Andrena fulva, but it seems that has black hairs in its face, not the white ones that this has. 

James McMillan @orchid_b kindly identified it for me as a red mason bee Osmia rufa.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

No wonder most toads return to their breeding ponds at night!

This toad crossed our path when we were walking in the Derwent Country Park near Gateshead on Easter Monday.

When I knelt down to take a photo and put the camera on the ground he attacked it, presumably because he could see his reflection in the lens. Luckily I had a lens filter attached, otherwise he would have made a mess of an expensive piece of glass.

As we walked around the lake we found several more toads, which we helpfully carried across the path and pointed in the general direction of the water. In retrospect, maybe that wasn't such a good idea because when we walked back ........

......... this heron was having the time of his life at an all-you-can-eat banquet of toads and newts.

I guess this is one reason why big migrations of toads, from their hibernation sites to their breeding ponds, tend to take place at night, when herons are roosting.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Easter Sunday walk along the river Wear

Probably the best weather that I can ever remember for an Easter Sunday. We took a walk along the south side of the river Wear, between Wolsingham and Black Banks plantation at Harperley.

Reassuring to find that the weird flower spikes of toothwort Lathraea squamaria were coming up again under the old coppiced hazels, where we've known them for nearly 40 years.

There's something vaguely reptilian about these parasitic flowering plants that siphon off all their nutrients from the roots of hazel.

You can read more about the strange physiology and folklore of toothwort by clicking here.

This is the plasmodial stage of the slime mould Reticularia lycoperdon [recently renamed Enteridium lycoperdon], probably only about a day away from turning into the sporulating stage. In the plasmodial stage it creeps over the alder tree trunk surface, digesting bacteria, then it forms a parchment-like skin (for pictures click here) enclosing countless dark brown spores. When the skin ruptures they are dispersed on the wind, then germinate into minute amoeba-like organisms that eventually aggregate back into this creeping plasmodial stage, which is most often seen in spring.

I found my first wild primrose of the season growing at the base of an ash tree, and ....

... hundreds of butterbur flower spikes had appeared along the riverbank in the last week.

Elm flowers. A mature elm tree in full bloom was a wonderful sight, with its crown a haze of purple, but it's one we are unlikely to see again, thanks to Dutch elm disease. Young elm trees that have regenerated from the roots of dead stumps are common enough though.

The beautiful juvenile female cones of larch, waiting to be pollinated.

Artefacts of autumn: a hazel nut neatly split in two by a grey squirrel and the stone of a fruit (wild arum?) nibbled by a field mouse.

A rather tatty peacock that had safely made it through the winter and was sunbathing on an old plastic bag.

A pair of goosander on the river. Their behaviour changes in spring. A few weeks ago they would have flown before I could get close but once they are paired up and have identified a hollow tree to nest in they are reluctant to leave their territory.

A fantastic carpet of wild garlic leaves beside the footpath, that will become a sea of white in a few days' time when the flowers open.

Those trees at the top of the bank host a rookery, so we were accompanied by their cawing along this stretch of the walk.