Sunday, October 30, 2011

An Autumn Walk along the River Tees

The long, narrow gorge spanned by Egglestone's Abbey Bridge bridge provides one the most picturesque viewing points on the River Tees in autumn

This is the view from the bridge looking upstream - Egglestone Abbey is just  above the trees in the middle distance (double-click) and is ...

...... visible from the bridge now that the leaves are falling.

The view downstream - there are footpaths on both sides of the river and you can follow it down to its confluence with the River Greta, at the Meeting of the Waters.

The river squeezes through narrow gaps and tumbles over boulders ...

.... and you can hear it through the trees all the way along the path, even when it isn't in spate.

The high humidity in the gorge makes this a fine habitat for mosses and ferns like this polypody growing as an epiphyte on a tree branch over the river.

Yellowing horse chestnut leaves provide a sunbathing spot for flies whose days are numbered, now that frosts are on their way.

Nectar-rich ivy flowers provide a last-minute refuelling station for drone flies.

Shades of yellow - hazel, oak and beech autumn colours.

Some of the large beeches have been attacked by honey fungus - always fatal, but it can take decades to kill the tree.

A nuthatch, dangling down to pick beech nuts out of beech mast - it seems to be a 'mast year', with a very heavy crop.

Ripe holly berries are a reminder that there are only 50 shopping days until Christmas.

Downstream there are some wild cherries with a fiery display of autumn colours..

... and a fine crop of ripe yew berries.

A passing shower leaves a rainbow, which is wasted on those two sheep that are watching - they only have dichromatic vision and can't distinguish red from green.

Looking back upstream - on what Kenneth Grahame in the Wind in the Willows called a 'golden afternoon'...

Friday, October 28, 2011

New Suit of Armour

The trouble with being an invertebrate with a hard external skeleton is that you have to change your suit of armour every time you grow a little bigger - which is what this woodlouse is doing. It's a risky business, leaving you exposed to predators until your new exoskeleton hardens, so this cautious crustacean is doing it in two stages. It's already slipped out of the rear half and its new shell plates have become hard and shiny. Now it's extricating itself from the head end, and here you can see that the newly exposed shell plates are still soft, with a dull surface. The animal hasn't quite removed its delicate, all-important antennae from inside their armour yet - if you double-click the image to enlarge you can just make them out inside their old translucent covering. 

This woodlouse is Oniscus asellus and you can find more about its biology here

The whole process is known as ecdysis and all invertebrates that shed their old armour in this way are grouped together as ecdysozoans. You can read all about it here.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

A Forest in the Fog

Thursday's Guardian Country Diary describes a visit to Hamsterley Forest in Co. Durham on a foggy day.
The forest is a mixture of deciduous trees and conifers, with some fine beech plantations and some ancient oaks. Forests have a wonderfully mysterious, spooky quality when the sun begins to break through the fog.
In addition to the usual Scots pine and Sitka and Norway spruces there are some less familiar conifers, like this western hemlock. Its blunt resinous needles have an appealingly fruity, citrus-like aroma  when you crush them.

Hamsterley is always a good destination for a fungal foray - this (I think) is the larch bolete Suillus grevillei and this ...
... is yellow stag'shorn Calocera viscosa.

This looks like Coriolus versicolor, not yet fully expanded. The brackets exude droplets of moisture underneath.

And finally, one toadstool that's unmistakeable - stinkhorn Phallus impudicus. These always appear in large numbers in early autumn in a Norway spruce plantation in the forest and if you happen to be approaching from downwind you become aware of their presence from some distance. This is a perfect specimen that must have grown up overnight ....
.... and here' one that's probably a day old. Flies have carried off all its sticky brown spores, leaving one late arrival with nothing to eat. Slugs have already made inroads into the remains.

Sunday, October 23, 2011


Harvestman spiders like this Mitopus morio turn up quite frequently in our garden at this time of year and quite a few of them carry these little scarlet parasitic spider mites - which apparently are mite larvae belong to a genus called Leptus - attached to their legs and body. 

I really need to catch one of these and take a look under the microscope - at this magnification they just look like little blobs of red sealing wax.

You can see another kind of parasitic mite, on bumblebees, here

Monday, October 17, 2011

On the Benefits of Exploring your own Backyard

I was recently sent a book to review that brought home to me the great benefit of wildlife blogging – the wonderful way in which it allows people to share their exploration of Nature in their own local patch in a collaborative, mutually supportive way.

The book, On Extinction: How we Became Estranged from Nature by Melanie Challenger, is a long and often lyrical meditation on how people lose contact with their natural environment and the effect of this on the way in which we humans exploit and often abuse the natural world.  You can read a recent review of the book, by Kathleen Jamie in the Guardian, here but in essence it begins with the author, a poet, working in an abandoned tin miner’s hut in Cornwall, lamenting how little she knows about the wild flowers that surround her and contemplating extinction and the way in which advancing technology and human exploitation of natural resources have led to the loss of livelihoods, cultures and species. Over the following 133 pages she travels to an Antarctic whaling station in South Georgia, to the Falklands, Whitby and Baffin Island and visits the Inuit on the Arctic tundra, witnessing for herself evidence of humans’ impact on animals, their environment and each others’ cultures, with – along the way - numerous digressions into history, culture, literature, politics and economics, explaining how all this came about.   In the final chapter having - quite literally - travelled to the ends of the Earth the author, drifting downstream in her canal boat towards Wicken fen in Cambridgeshire, finds at least partial personal salvation in learning to identify the plants and animals around her - and so reconnecting with the natural world. She has discovered a fundamental truth – that nothing engenders respect for nature, and alertness to forces that threaten it, more powerfully than being on first-name terms with the wild plants and animals with which we share our local patch of the planet on an everyday basis. When they are part of the fabric of a person’s life, then it’s well-nigh impossible not to care about them and be aware of changes.

Having read and learned from many hundreds of fellow nature bloggers’ posts over the last two and a half years, it seems to me that this is a conclusion that many have reached and, perhaps even more importantly, have conveyed to blog posters around the planet, sharing their personal explorations that often venture only a few miles from home.

The first picture I posted on my blog was of a spider’s web and here, 450 posts later, is another such, in celebration of the modern technology’s web that connects people who share and care about nature in their own backyard. 

Wonderful resource the web, isn’t it?

On Extinction: How we Became Estranged from Nature by Melanie Challenger is published by Granta. ISBN 978-1-84708-187-2.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

The Best Buddleja for Butterflies?

The 'butterfly bush' Buddleja davidii, an import from China that has become firmly established in the wild in Britain, is famed for its ability to attract butterflies. Unfortunately its flowering time does seem to be shifting ever-earlier - as a result of climate change, according to some experts who I've talked to - and its certainly the case that there were very few butterflies on the wing when the plants in my garden were at the peak of flowering back in the summer. In contrast, this orange late-flowering hybrid, Buddleja x weyeriana (a hybrid between B. davidii and B. globosa) - has been feeding red admirals, commas and small tortoiseshells (not many of the latter around this year) since early September and will be providing bees and butterflies with nectar right up until the first frost. This shrub is the 'last chance saloon' for an energy  top-up in my garden: highly recommended.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011


Photographing dippers can be a frustrating business - they have a habit of waiting until you get within range then flying off around a bend in the river, a sequence that's repeated until they get to the limit of their territory, when they turn around and fly back downstream. This one, on the River Derwent near Blanchland in Northumberland, was more accommodating because, I suspect, it's one of this year's juveniles. It's remarkable how well its plumage blends with the peaty-brown colour of the water - take your eye off one of these delightful birds for a moment and it can be a struggle to locate it again.

In this picture it's plunging into the current to feed. Dippers can swim like ducks but also walk under water, held down by the pressure of the current on their back, searching amongst the stones for food items. It's interesting how it seems to close its eyes when it pushes its head into the water - much as we might when we dive into a swimming pool. I assume they must open them again once they're submerged...

This is the moment when it became aware of my presence - and whizzed off around the bend in the river...

Saturday, October 1, 2011

The First and Last Rose of Summer

Burnet rose Rosa pimpinellifolia is the most fragrant of all the British wild roses and also the first to come into bloom - sometimes in mid-May - and now it has come back into bloom in a hedgerow here at Wolsingham in Weardale.
There's been a lot in the press recently about the heat-wave inducing spring flowers to produce a repeat performance in October but it's not really that uncommon. Primroses, for example, quite often produce a few flowers in early autumn. For any species whose flowering is triggered by daylength, the hours of daylight are more-or-less similar now to those that the plant would have experienced in spring, so it's just responding weakly to the environmental stimulus that switches it into flowering mode. Spring-blooming wild flowers are more likely to produce an autumn encore if they experience in growth check in summer - maybe drought or low temperatures - that's followed by favourable conditions that allow resumption of rapid growth in late summer. I've noticed this particularly in some trees after a summer drought - somewhere I have some photos of rowans producing flowers alongside ripening berries in late summer, when rain after a drought has triggered a resumption in growth.