Saturday, August 20, 2011

Bent Beak...

This unfortunate juvenile herring gull with a strangely deformed beak was on the foreshore at North Shields, near the mouth of the River Tyne this afternoon.

I've seen starlings with a similar deformity on several occasions but this is the first time I've seen it in a gull. The bird probably has difficulty feeding and doesn't look in particular good condition, but if it hangs around the car park behind the beach and feeds on the chips that people chuck to the gulls it might be OK...........

Thursday, August 18, 2011


I found this little forest bug Pentatoma rufipes out for a stroll on a patch of willow herb yesterday.

Here you can see that long proboscis - used for eating plants and for impaling the occasional caterpillar - folded back between the front legs.

I wondered what those inflated purple patches were at the point where the hind leg joins the thorax - until I consulted a few books and realised these are the stink glands that give these insects their alternative name - stink bugs. These secrete a noxious smelling fluid to deter predators...........or in this case the paparazzi.

For some excellent pictures of this insect (and remarkable eggs) - see here.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011


Last autumn I watched a bulldozer scraping away topsoil to level an area of building land, and made a mental note at the time to return this year to see what opportunist plants had established themselves on the bare soil. This one, common field speedwell Veronica persica, was well represented there. Usually the lowermost petal in this species is much paler, but this particular individual had exceptionally vivid blue flowers with deep blue, heart-shaped stamens. This species is an alien and was first recorded in Britain in 1825, and I imagine that its small seeds arrived on birds' feet, unlike .....

... this common sowthistle Sonchus oleraceus that must have staged an airborne invasion with its parachute-equipped plumed seeds.
I've been walking past this piece of land long enough to remember when it was arable land, with a wheat crop, and several of the other opportunists probably germinated from the residual seed bank of arable weeds in the soil ..... like this red-leg Persicaria maculosa....

...... this fumitory Fumaria officinalis ....

... and this field pansy Viola arvensis.

All of these are common and would be classified as weeds if they were competing with crop plants, but as colonisers of disturbed bare ground they're classed botanically as ruderals - species with constantly shifting populations that colonised disturbed habitats before more permanent vegetation establishes itself.

Common they may be, but the world would be a poorer place without them and just occasionally something a little less common reappears when the soil is disturbed.......

...... like this henbit Lamium amplexicaule which is much less abundant than it once was, thanks to the use of herbicides in intensive agriculture.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Lethal Beauty

They almost look good enough to eat - which would be a big mistake. Poisonous cuckoo pint fruits ripening. The birds must eat them though, because from one original plant there are now cuckoo pints all over our garden.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Wasps and Figwort

Somewhere in our garden - or close by - there must be a nest of these tree wasps Vespula sylvestris because they are all over the garden at the moment.

When their breeding season comes to an end the wasps concentrate of feeding themselves with anything sweet that they can find, instead of catching insects to feed the brood - and that's when they become a nuisance, entering kitchens to satisfy their craving for sweet food.

Sometimes they just seem to sit around and do nothing and that's when they are at their most menacing, because it's easy to accidentally grab one when you're weeding the garden - as I know to my cost. At least when they are flying they buzz and you can hear them coming.

Fortunately there some plants in the bog garden that divert their attention. They find figwort Scrophularia nodosa absolutely irresistible .... although they do struggle a bit to reach the nectar in the flowers .....

In order to force their heads into the flowers they have to curl their tail right underneath .....

.... and hug the flowers, but once they get a good grip on the flower they can force their wedge-shaped heads in, picking up pollen and transferring it to other flowers as they feed. I've spent quite a while watching them and, in comparison with bees, they are unmethodical flower visitors. Bees will usually move from one flower to the next-nearest one, whereas the wasps seem to forage around at random, often coming back to the same flower several times within a few minutes.  

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Go with the Flow

Could there be any more relaxing way of whiling away a warm summer's afternoon than to lean over a bridge and watch trout in a stream? With a few sinuous flicks of their tails they expend just enough energy to hold station in the current, waiting for food to be wafted in their direction.
I photographed these beautifully marked brown trout in Middlehope burn, a crystal-clear tributory of the river Wear at Westgate in Weardale.

Friday, August 5, 2011


There used to be a small pond down at the bottom of our garden that began to leak badly (couch grass rhizomes speared through the butyl liner) so I left the leaky liner in situ, filled in the pond and planted it up as a bog garden with plants like yellow flag, purple loosestrife, meadowsweet and figwort. The last three species are in full flower now and attracting swarms of this attractive little hoverfly, Episyrphus balteatus

This is one of the easier species to photograph in flight, staying more-or-less stationary for long enough to focus. It's interesting to see that the wings are rotated at various angles during the hover - it's not just an up-and-down wing movement, more a figure of eight. Interesting too that this complex wing movement is all controlled by the musculature in the thorax, since there are no muscles in the wings.

Delightful little insects - the harrier jump-jets of the insect world..... but maybe there's a slightly darker side to their activities....

These are useful insects, whose larvae feed on aphids, and normally the adults feed on pollen - and so pollinate flowers - but a lot of them have found their way into my greenhouse and are feeding obsessively on the powdery mildew on the cucucumber leaves (it seems to be a particularly bad year for this disease)

You can see the tongue of the insect picking up mildew spores here - but you can also see spores clinging to other parts of its anatomy - e.g. on hairs just to the left of the leg.

Episyrphus balteatus often forms dense migratory swarms, so I imagine that when they travel around they can carry fungal spores with them, and so also transmit fungal diseases. It would be interesting to see what fungi can be cultured from the spores carried on their bodies.
On balance, though, attractive, useful, fascinating insects.

Thursday, August 4, 2011


Today's Guardian Country Diary describes a walk from Forest-in-Teesdale to Winch Bridge near Bowlees, along a popular stretch of the Pennine Way on the south bank of the river Tees. The 'forest' in question is the location of the juniper forest that covers much of the fellside south of High Force waterfall. It's full of wonderfully gnarled, wind-pruned trees that have a fragrance of gin if you crush their foliage between finger and thrumb.

A little further down the hill there's a sweeter kind of fragrance, when you come to the Sphagnum bog, which I guess covers about an acre - and last week was full of scented bog asphodels at the peak of flowering.
 Vast numbers of these flowers were in bloom - a better display than I have ever seen before. Teesdale is rightly famous for its rare spring gentians, but in summer the asphodels are a stunning spectacle too.

The Latin name for the plant is Narthecium ossifragum, alluding to the fact that animals were once believed to develop brittle bones if they grazed on this plant - ossifragum means 'bone breaking'. The low calcium levels in these boggy soils are a far more likely cause of any skeletal problems in grazing animals.

Further down the path the meadows beside the river are full of greater burnet .....

.... and meadowsweet, while on the rocky islands in the river ...

... the rather rare shrubby cinquefoil is in bloom ....

.... with its egg yolk-yellow flowers. In winter, when the river rises (especially after rapid snow-melt up on the fells) these shrubs are completely submerged but their roots penetrate deep into the fissures in the rocks, anchoring them in the current.

Some of the best floral displays are in the pastures near Winch bridge, full of betony ....

... and devil's bit scabious (click for a larger image, to see this more clearly).

All of these flowers are a major attraction for butterflies, like this newly-minted female common blue.

The appearance of these fine Boletus toadstools were a reminder that autumn is on the horizon.

The continuity of the wonderful flora in the pastures along this stretch of Teesdale really depends on carefully managed grazing, and the quote from a  farmer inscribed under Keith Alexander's scultures describes what would happen if the grazing stopped: "It reverts to scrub. When it's gone, it's lost".