Monday, February 19, 2024


 We've had single siskins at the garden bird feeder since December but lately their numbers have risen, so now we have a small but regular flock of about half a dozen. They are feisty little birds that easily hold their own on the feeders against competing tree sparrows and greenfinches. Their plumage colours intensify as we get closer to the breeding season. In some of these photographs you can see just how sharply pointed their beaks are - like fine forceps - well  adapted for extracting seed from alder cones, their preferred natural food source at this time of year.

Wednesday, February 14, 2024

A barn owl at mid-day

 We watched this lovely barn owl, hunting at mid-day, a couple of weeks ago. The location was the naturally re-wilding site of a former coal mine in the Wear valley near the village of Willington. It 's about sixty years since the mine closed and it has reverted to open grassland with scattered alder, willow and  hawthorn, with well-established young oaks that must have been sown by jays burying acorns from old woodland nearby. It's a fine location for grassland butterflies in summer and in winter there's a very high vole population, so it's a perfect hunting ground for barn owls. 

Wednesday, February 7, 2024

Early blooming spurge laurel

 At this time of year we are all on the lookout for the first sign of spring flowers - the first celandine, colt'sfoot or maybe even a precocious primrose - but one of the first native species to flower is a shrub, spurge laurel Daphne laureola.  Its lime green flowers, with golden stamens, tend to be tilted downwards under the glossy evergreen foliage, so are easily overlooked. 

This plant is one of several currently in flower on the south bank of the river Tyne, upstream from the Tyne Green Country Park in Hexham, Northumberland. Spurge laurel is an uncommon shrub in Northumberland and Durham - I can only recall seeing it in three locations, but there are probably about a dozen in this population. It is a slow-growing shrub and probably slow to establish and reach flowering size.

I didn't notice at the time that I took the picture, but there was a small sap-sucking insect on the flowers, that I have yet to identify. The flowers are said to have a nocturnal fragrance that attracts moth pollinators, but they also produce nectar that attracts early-emerging bumblebees.

This last photo shows spurge laurel's black berries, which ripen in June. They are poisonous.