Sunday, May 14, 2017

Red Grouse chicks

The heather moorland on Pikestone fell near Wolsingham in Weardale today was full of recently-hatched red grouse chicks.

When they are this small they have difficulty in running through the rough grass and forests of heather, so sometimes running across the top of the heather bushes is the easiest rout to safety.

The chicks are well camouflaged but when they know they have been spotted they make a run for it ....

.... and there is only one place they want to be ....

.... and that's with their mother.

This very protective hen bird has six chicks sheltering under her body and wings.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Peak Bluebell

This was the scene this afternoon in Hollingside wood, about a mile south of Durham city centre.

On a mild, still spring day the scent was intoxicating. The 17th. century herbalist John Gerard, who knew these flowers as the English Jacinthe or Hare-Bel, thought it 'a strong, sweet smell, somewhat stuffing the head.....'

In The Englishman's Flora (1958) Geoffrey Grigson lists almost 50 county or regional names for bluebell, that include adder's flower, blue bonnets, blue bottle,crow-bells,, cuckoo's stockings, fairy bells, goosey-gander, griggles, pride of the wood, rook's flower and ring o' bells ..... but the one I like best, from Kent, is snapgrass, said to be derived 'from the rubbing, clicking noise of the stalks when gathered'.

The bulbs were once harvested to make glue.

This is how John Gerard described them, in The Herbal or General History of Plants, published in 1633:

'.....the root is bulbous, full of a slimy glewish juyce, which will serve to set feathers upon arrows instead of glew or to paste books with.....'

Friday, April 21, 2017

Then there were three .....

I didn't really take much notice of the noisy, agitated lapwing overhead, or of the car that drove slowly past until I heard the screech of tyres on tarmac as it braked to a halt. Then I realised there we four little bumps in the road behind it; lapwing chicks that had strayed from the pasture onto the road.

The parent bird, utterly fearless, landed in the road and ushered one of the chicks away into the verge but then took to the air again as the car drove away.

One of the remaining chicks was just a patch of blood and fluffy down on the road but the two others had gone into their instinctive survival routine as we approached, pressing themselves flat against the road and staying perfectly still, hoping they wouldn't be noticed. We picked them up - fluffy, almost weightless bundles with outsized feet - and dropped them over the wall, back into the pasture where they ran for cover - peep-peeping for their parents.

To his credit, the driver turned around and came back to see if he could help and was clearly very distressed that one was dead. In all fairness, if he wasn't forewarned he would have found the birds very hard to see when they were in their defensive prone position in the road.

It was, though, an all-too-common tragedy. The parent birds would have incubated four eggs in their exposed nest for the best part of a month, defending them all day-long against crows, only for one to be flattened under the wheels of a car within hours of hatching.

We really need an awareness-raising campaign in the dales, warning drivers that from now until June they can expect to all sorts of upland juvenile animals and breeding birds straying onto roads, and advising drivers to be vigilant and slow down.

Road traffic takes a terrible toll on wildlife - hares, hedgehogs, badgers, wading bird chicks - in late spring.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Early spring along the river Wear at Wolsingham, Weardale

Blue skies and warm sunny weather in Weardale this weekend. Here are a few of the sights from a walk along the banks of the river Wear downstream from Wolsingham.

Blackthorn in full bloom everywhere.

Elm flowering is long finished, now the clusters of seeds are developing

Dry weather in the dale, so the water level in the river has dropped rapidly, leaving shallow pools full of trapped fish.

Great tit singing

Grey wagtails are most often seen at the water's edge, but this cock bird was perched in a riverbank tree

A very confiding hedge sparrow. I suspect its was reluctant to fly because its nest was somewhere close, though I failed to find it.

Herb robert coming into flower. This was a nutrient-starved plant rooted in a dead tree and the stress may account for those vivid red leaves

Plenty of ripe ivy berries, particularly valuable food for spring migrants.

Lambs growing fast ..... and very lively

The best find of the day, a morel Morchella esculenta. The sandy silt near the river bank seems to suit these fungi, though they don't appear very often.

Nuthatch, very vociferous at this time of year.

A well-worn peacock butterfly, refuelling on butterbur nectar after a long hibernation

So warm that sheep were looking for somewhere shady to rest by mid-morning

Sycamore buds are exceptionally beautiful when they swell, elongate and begin to burst at this time of year

It was been an exceptional year for toothwort, the parasite that gains all its nutrients from the roots of hazel. Must have seen well over 100 flower spikes.

Click here for more information on this unusual flowering plant that is completely lacking in chlorophyll.

The tiny-flowered ivy-leaved speedwell Veronica hederifolia coming into flower

Willow warblers singing all along the riverbank

Wood sorrel coming into bloom

.... and finally, a very noisy singing wren.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Cuttlefish 'bone'

This cuttlefish 'bone' - the internal shell of this common cephalopod - was washed up on Blast beach at Dawdon on the Durham coast today.

When I was a kid living in Sussex I often saw these lovely animals swimming at East Head, in a warm sandy bay in Chichester harbour where I went sailing, and I frequently found their 'bones' on the shore. We used to collect them for our pet budgerigar, as a calcium-rich dietary supplement. 

I haven't seen cuttlefish 'bones'  very often here on the North East coast.

The first thing that strikes you when you pick these objects up is how light they are. They function as buoyancy aids and are full of tiny air chambers. You can find some wonderful images of their microscopic internal structure on this Wikipedia site - click here.

Cuttlefish illustration from Shell Life by Edward Step (1901).Frederick Warne & Co.

Visit the ARKive web site - here - for more information about these animals and for some lovely movie clips

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Biodiversity in a kitchen waste recycling bin

Today's Guardian Country Diary is all about the contents of our garden kitchen waste compost bins.

We have been recycling all of the vegetable waste from the kitchen, together with garden weeds and fallen leaves, for about 30 years now, using three black compost bins. During that time we must have produced tons of compost that has all been dug back into the garden, which is now a very fertile plot.

These are some of the organisms that do all the recycling work.

The first organisms to colonise the vegetable peelings and fruit skins are fungi. I suspect that this might be a Penicillium mould, which often grows on the skins of rotting citrus fruits.

This is the rather lovely pin mould, Mucor mucedo, with glassy hyphae and sporangia that look like beads of polished jet.

This, I suspect, is Botrytis, a common coloniser of dead vegetable matter.

Currently there are thousands of these tiny moth-flies (also known as drain-flies or owl-midges) in one of the bins.

They breed in vast numbers during the early stages of composting, when the bins are less than half full....

.... and provide a food source for some of the predators that live in the bins, like this small spider that has an egg cocoon under the bin lid.

The bins are home to a lot of slugs, that consume decaying plant material and are useful all the time they stick to this diet, though in spring they become a nuisance if they consume seedlings in the garden. 

To minimise that risk I raise plants in posts until they are large enough to show some degree of slug resistance when I plant them out in the garden.

A black snake millipedes, that feeds on the decaying plant material and probably on some of the fungi too.

As the composting proceeds and the bin contents become drier the numbers of these minute springtails increase. When you lift the lids they pole-vault into the air, using the special structure called a furcula under their tail end.

And finally ...... the most important recyclers of all, brandling worms Eisenia fetida. When composting is at its peak there are hundreds of these in each bin. 

Much of the compost that ends up in the garden has probably passed through the digestive system of one of these worms.