Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Tree Bumblebee

Yesterday's unbelievably warm weather coaxed this bumblebee out of hibernation in the garden, where it spent most of the afternoon inside crocus blooms, before landing on a wall to catch the last rays of the afternoon sunshine. There's so much crocus pollen on it that it's hard to be sure what species it is....... but thanks to the kind commentators below I now know that it's a tree bumblebee Bombus hypnorum.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Wildlife Viewed Through Beer Goggles: 2 Adders

If you like your lager with added 'bite', then the Allendale Brewery's Adder lager may be for you. I enjoyed it - perfect for today's unseasonably warm and sunny weather - but strictly, of course, as part of my ongoing academic investigation into wildlife-themed beers.

I don't see real adders in my part of County Durham very often, which is probably more to do with me not visiting the right places at the right time than a reflection of their rarity. Whenever I do encounter them it's usually in Hamsterley Forest or in moorland edge habitats, but I met this one a few years ago basking in the middle of a road near Wolsingham in Weardale.

She was imminent danger of becoming road kill so - with great care - I gave her a gentle prod with a long stick and she moved to the side of the road where she quickly slide down a rabbit burrow, which was a piece of good luck for her but maybe not for any resident rabbits. 

Lovely reptile, though.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Do you ever grow weary of lugging photographic gear around....?

Well, if you do, think what it must have been like for the Kearton brothers, Richard (1862-1928) and Cherry (1871-1940), who were pioneers of bird photography at the end of the 19th. century and in the early years of the 20th. century. If you ever come across a copy of Wild Life at Home by Richard Kearton, snap it up because it gives a wonderful insight into the energy, ingenuity and sometimes sheer bravery of these early bird photographers. Using unwiedy, heavy mahogany and brass cameras and glass plates, stout wooden tripods and sometimes magnesium flash powder that could set your moustache on fire, they went to enormous lengths to capture the beauty of Britain's birds life for the Victorian and Edwardian public.... and became the celebrity wildlife photographers of their day.

This copy of Wild Life at Home dates 1907, although the book was first published in 1898. Like many natural history books of the period, it's notable for the beautiful gilt embossed cover. 

Elder brother Richard eventually became principally the researcher and writer for their popular books, while Cherry travelled widely overseas and went on to become a celebrated cinematographer, lecturer and broadcaster. 

In Wild Life at Home Richard reveals the hard-won secrets of their success. This is their recommended technique for photographing sea birds on inaccessible cliff ledges, as used in their pioneering photographs of sea birds on St. Kilda.

Here's how to scale a tree with your camera and tripod. No big telephotos and zoom lenses then.

The Kearton brothers were born in Swaledale in the Yorkshire Dales and used the field craft they'd learned in their rural youth to get within flash powder distance of shy birds. Here's one of them (Richard, I think) lurking in a bush...

.... and here he is demonstrating how much less visible you are if you wear his recommended tree-trunk mask. Why not give it a try? 

The Keartons pioneered the use of hides that are still essential lurking gear for the serious bird photographer. One of the brothers is inside this artificial farmyard rubbish heap that could be moved around the farm on wheels ...

...... and there's a Kearton inside this stuffed sheep  .....

..... and inside this stuffed ox .... 

... although things didn't always go quite as they'd planned. Here's Richard trapped inside the ox after it toppled over ... soon to be rescued by his brother, but not before Cherry had recorded the mishap for posterity.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Wonderful Miss Waghorn ....

When I was a kid I attended a rural village school, the like of which is – I suspect – now rare, if not extinct. It only had four teachers, the first of whom was Mrs. Matthews, a jolly, earth-mother figure who was just perfect for acclimatising bewildered infants to the educational system. Next-up was Miss  Waghorn. Some pupils faced the looming possibility of progressing into her class with feelings of dread, verging on terror.

Miss Waghorn was a figure who could have stepped straight out of the pages of Dickens. She must then have been in her late fifties. She very tall and very thin. She wore buttoned shoes, long dresses with high collars and long rows of buttons. Lots of buttons. She wore her long grey hair on a tight bun above a severe expression. You didn’t mess with Miss Waghorn. When she glanced up from her register and gave you ‘the look’ over the top of her wire-rimmed glasses it could freeze your blood. It had even been known to cause spontaneous incontinence in more sensitive transgressors. But Mrs. Waghorn had some wonderful qualities.

One was consummate skill in the art of storytelling and reading stories. If the class had managed to get through the week without incurring her wrath, Friday afternoon was story time and she could bring books to life. I can still hear her reading from Kenneth Graham’s Wind in the Willows, while the class sat spellbound in their desks. I can also remember what came after each instalment.

If the weather was fine she’d take us all down to the stream at the bottom of the school playing field, with the promise that we might see some of the characters from the book in real life. The whole class (in reality, about 15) would creep forward on their hands and knees. It must have looked strange to the casual passer-by. Usually we’d hear a ‘plop’ and see the trail of bubbles that marked the escape route of a startled water vole. Occasionally, if we were quiet enough, we might catch a glimpse of the animal itself, grazing on the grassy edge of the stream.

You might be wondering what this indulgent outbreak of nostalgia has to do with the photos of the horse chestnut bud, above and below.

Well, Miss Waghorn was a big fan of nature tables. The one in her class grew to become a mini-natural history museum as the year progressed. Skulls and skeletons, fossils, flowers and twigs, tadpoles, bird’s eggs and nests, pinned butterflies - all accumulated as the seasons advanced. In the 1950s collecting from nature wasn’t socially and ecologically unacceptable – ecology hadn’t reached the public consciousness – and its impact would be small compared with the effects of agrochemicals and pollution that were still to come. My contribution to the nature table was a dead bat, which earned me a lot of credit with Miss Waghorn, even though it did pong a bit on hot days.

One of the big events in the nature table calendar came in late February, with the ‘sticky bud’ competition. Everyone had to cut a horse chestnut twig, keep it in a jam jar of water and draw its progress as it opened.  

It was an exercise in close observation rather than drawing skill and I suspect it was commonplace in rural schools throughout the country at that time. This illustration above comes from Wild Life Through the Year by Richard Morse, first published in 1942 and republished several times until 1959 - the kind of handbook for nature table observational exercises that teachers like Miss Waghorn woud have kept in their desk at the front of the class.

If she had been visited by today’s school inspectors, obsessed with national curriculum, standard attainment tests and league tables, they would probably have been horrified. I don’t suppose that spontaneously taking time out on a sunny afternoon to creep up on water voles – even if there was time left for it after completing a full hazard assessment – fits in well with today’s busy teaching schedule.
Miss Waghorn – and most of the water voles – are long gone, but not the memory of her nature table and the ‘sticky bud’ season. Which is why I like to keep one in a jam jar of water at his time of year.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Strange Cloud

Clashing warm and cold air masses have created some strange cloud formations here in the north east over the last few days. This strange pile-of-plates drifted past our window a couple of days ago. Do clouds like this have a name?

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Mutant Crows

We have a weeping pear (Pyrus salicifolia) tree in our garden which is regularly targeted by crows for materials for nest building and nest repair at this time of year. Its slender  twigs are long and pliable - desirable qualities for weaving into a nest - and the birds struggle mightily to tear them off, often with limited success. This morning the tree's assailant was a little different - a mutant crow with white wing primary and covert feathers.

This individual was due for a moult, judging by the wear and tear visible on the primary feathers, which are very tattered.

Single birds with groups of unpigmented feathers like this turn up quite frequently in most species (including our garden blackbirds) but what was interesting about this morning's visitor is that it was one of a pair, with virtually identical mutant markings. 

A single crow with some white feathers that mates with a normal all-black crow would be likely to produce all-black offspring if the white feathers were due to recessive gene mutation but if both birds in the pair were similarly mutant then some or perhaps all offspring (depending on how may genes are involved and how they interact) would inherit the trait, so an increasing number of birds like this should appear in the population. The fact that these two mutants seem to have paired up raises some interesting questions about how they choose potential mates. Each would have had an unlimited supply of normal all-black mates to choose from but they see to have chosen a mate that resembles themselves. This kind of non-random mating in the population (assortative mating, in the parlance of evolutionary biologists who study population genetics) should increase the frequency of their particular feather patterns in the population. It'll be interesting to see if white-winged crows become more prevalent around here in future years if these two are indeed a breeding pair and do successfully raise a brood that are similarly marked and show a similar preference for choosing mates.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

When drinking tea was the first step in botanical education...

When the frogs return to our garden pond (which they did yesterday) and the first lesser celandine comes into flower in the garden (which it also did yesterday - here it is, above), then as far as I'm concerned the fuse of spring has been lit. 

Lesser celandines may be commonplace but they are also remarkably variable flowers - in name as well as form. 

When I first started learning to recognise wild flowers, from Charles Tunnicliffe's illustrations on Brooke Bond tea cards in the early 1960s, I though there was just one form of what was then known as Ranunculus ficaria

Collecting full sets of these tea cards involved nagging parents and relatives into drinking prodigious volumes of tea and engaging in a complex system of swapping duplicates with school friends with similar interests. In those days field guides with coloured illustrations of wild flowers were few and far between - and expensive - so there must have been a generation of botanists who cut their teeth on field identification skills using these free gifts in packets of tea.

The process of learning about the natural world is one of discovering that what you thought was correct is either simply wrong or a gross oversimplification and I later learned that there are at least two forms of lesser celandine - the bog-standard version that reproduces with seeds and one with twice the normal number of chromosomes that produces few seeds but clones itself prolifically by producing clusters of small, white tuber-like bulbils, that look rather like grains of rice, at the base of the leaves close to the soil surface. The latter is the one I have in the garden and I've transported its bulbils to every corner of our plot in the mud on my gardening boots. 

These days the Latin name of the plant has changed too, so the Ranunculus ficaria that I learned from those tea cards in my youth is now Ficaria verna and is divided into as many as four subspecies by some botanists. Still, to misquote Shakespeare, a celandine by any other name would look as cheerful on a blustery, cold early spring day.

Lesser celandine flowers are remarkably variable and some forms have found their was into cultivation ...

....... like this copper-coloured one ( cv. cupreus) with pointed petals .....

..... this double-flowered one (cv. flore pleno) where all the stamens and ovaries are converted into extra petals, so that it resembles a miniature yellow water lily .....

...... and the purple-leaved form that looks dismal against bare soil in spring until it flowers and provides a startling contrast to the bright yellow flowers.

There are lesser celandines all over our garden in spring but soon after flowering they die away completely and disappear for another year - but not before the leaves have been attacked by celandine clustercup fungus, Uromyces dactylidis, whose first symptoms are pale blotches on the leaves but which later produces these colourful cupules of orange spores. It's a fungal disease of celandines that seems to have become more prevalent around here in recent years.

If celandines are left undisturbed they can produce a fine display of flowers in spring - like these in the Bishop of Durham's deer park at Auckland Castle at Bishop Auckland in Durham, photographed last spring.

Celandines look quite different to a visiting insect than they do to a human - for an insect's eye-view click here.

They also produce remarkably extensive root systems in later winter - click here.

Monday, February 20, 2012


This is one of the many cushions of Tortula moss that grow on the felt-covered roof of our garage, which is beginning to resemble an ocean studded with miniature rainforest-covered islands.

At this time of year the moss plants are lush and are growing well on mild, wet winter days, but in summer they can be baked by the sun during periods of drought that can last for weeks (if we're lucky!). This moss genus has a remarkable mechanism for resisting the long term effects of drought, thanks to specialised proteins called dehydrins and rehydrins within the leaf cells that protect the delicate cell membranes when the plants dry out and when they rehydrate again after rain.

This is a very droughted sample of a closely related species called Syntrichia ruralis subsp. ruraliformis (which used to be called Tortula ruraliformis before taxonomists changed their minds about its name). It grows in environments that are even more arid in summer than our garage roof - on coastal sand dunes. I subjected it to artificial drought - 10 days on a sunny indoor window ledge with no water..... 

...... and here it is five minutes after one half  of the cushion has been re-wetted, simulating rainfall ....

... and five minutes later still after the whole cushion has been re-wetted...... flourishing green moss again (Syntrichia ruraliformis leaves are naturally yellowish-green).

There are several plants commonly referred to as 'resurrection plants' (see Google for more) that have evolved the capability for this apparently miraculous recovery after drought and, understandably, the underlying physiological and biochemical mechanisms that allow them to tolerate drought are of great interest in scientists who are working towards breeding more drought-tolerant crops.

Some mosses  are much tougher than they look. They were, after all, amongst the first plants to colonise the land surface around half a billion years ago..... and they are still here, after five major mass extinction events and drastic climate changes. Maximum respect for Syntrichia and related Tortula species, for sheer resilience and durability.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Wildlife Viewed Through Beer Goggles: Badgers and Hares

We're in the 'Phoney War' period at the moment while we wait for spring to really hit its stride, so I've been casting around for a worthy project while we wait for the first summer migrants to reach our shores - and I think I've found the perfect one: wildlife-themed beers. This is this evening's sunset viewed through a glass of Badger Breweries Hopping Hare ale. 

I've noticed a remarkable proliferation of wildlife-themed beers in recent years so this is a project that could keep a dedicated naturalist busy well into summer and beyond. 

And this is a good place to start - a brew celebrating not one but two much-loved British mammals and containing a host of botanical ingredients, including no less than three hop varieties; 'Thrice Hopped', as the brewers charmingly put it. When did you last hear the word 'thrice' used? The English language is alive and well and inscribed on a beer bottle.

Oh, and since you asked, they're Goldings and Cascade, combined with First Gold. They add a warm golden glow to sundown.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Pea Hill Community Park

Today's Guardian Country Diary is an account of a walk around the Durham market town of Crook on a snowy morning, ending at the village of Fir Tree at the Pea Hill Community Park, which was opened last year. The park is graced by this wooden statue of two drift miners.... one young, the other old, standing shoulder-to-shoulder.

Coal seams around Crook lie close to the surface and outcrop on hillsides, so drift miners chased the seams underground from the point where they outcropped. The Crook community was founded on coal but all the mines had closed down by the end of the 1960s.

The statue and these carved wooden bench ends are the work of tree sculptor Tommy Craggs, who performs his artistry with a chainsaw on naturally fallen trees.

This seating area in the park is surrounded with a shelter of woven willow ....

.... with willow figures behind ....

..... and a woven willow tunnel for kids to explore.

On the day when we visited the willow was already producing silvery catkins ....

... that were coming into flower despite the cold snap.

For kids it's a great spot to play and for the less energetic it's an ideal place to take in the view of snow covered Weardale.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Natural History of Railway Station Seating

This post is dedicated to anyone who has arrived at King's Cross station in London on a cold winter's night at 5pm. on a Friday, having parted with an obscene amount of money for a ticket back to Newcastle, only to find that there has been a freight train derailment at Peterborough and your train will be delayed by two hours - and then realised, after looking around the station, that there are no seats - anywhere - to sit out your weary wait with 2000 other disgruntled passengers who are desperate to get home.

It wasn't always like that. There was a time when railway stations did have seating, and while it could never have been described as comfortable, it was sometimes rather distinctive.

This beautiful example, now in the National Railway Museum at York, once graced the platform at Yarmouth South Town (served by the Great Eastern Railway, I think). With a fitting sense of plaice, bearing in mind that Yarmouth has a fine trawling tradition, the cast iron bench ends are decorated with a trio of flatfish and a couple of scallops. Lovely.

Had you found yourself waiting on a platform 'Up North' during the heyday of the North Eastern Railway, then you would have been sharing your seat with a couple of sinuous serpents.

If your train was late in the Lake District, then the Furness Railway supplied you with these fine benches decorated with red squirrels nibbling bunches of grapes.

There are still red squirrels in the Lake District (though precious few grapes to sustain them), but the Furness Railway has long gone ..... but these benches still adorn the promenade near Grange-over-Sands railway station.