Thursday, January 31, 2013

Judging a Book by its Cover

Today's natural history books are generally wonderful, covering a wide choice of organisms and illustrated with excellent photographs and illustrations. But there is one aspect of natural history publishing that Victorian and Edwardian publishers excelled in and that has now almost disappeared: embossed covers. It's also something that downloaded digital books can never have - there is no way you can run your fingers over an embossed cover on your Kindle. Here are a few attractive examples from old natural history books.

Three Great Naturalists by John Upton, published in the early years of the 20th. century.

Wildlife at Home: How to Study and Photograph it, by Richard and Cherry Kearton, published in 1907

Morris's British Birds by the Rev. F.O. Morris. 1891 edition, published in 6 volumes.

Morris's British Butterflies by the Rev. F.O. Morris. 1870

A Popular History of British Mosses by Robert M. Stark, 1860

A Treatise on the Esculent Funguses of England by Charles David Badham, 1863

Bees, Wasps and Allied Insects of the British Isles by Edward Step, 1932

Rambles Among the Flowers: Fruiting Time by T. Carreras, early 1920s.

Ferns of Great Britain and their Allies by Anne Pratt, 

Wayside and Woodland Ferns by Edward Step

Shell Life by Edward Step, early 20th. century

Toadstools and Mushrooms of the Countryside by Edward Step

Friday, January 25, 2013

Weird Eyes

Starlings aren't as common as they used to be but we've had quite a few in the garden during the present spell of cold weather. Today I noticed something odd about their eyes that I've never seen before. Above is a starling in wary mode, with its beady eyes looking all around for danger.

Here's a starling trying to feed with that rather strange technique that they use, with their beaks gaping then closing. Take a close look at where its eye is now - almost in its mouth and almost under the upper mandible.

When a starling switches from wary to feeding mode and it opens its beak wide the tension in the flesh on either side of the gape pulls the eyes forward, so that they are almost on the edge of the mouth and focused with binocular vision on the food source that it's pecking at. Imagine how their focus must flicker between near and far, and their field of view must vary between narrow and broad, every time they open and close their beak and their eyes move backwards and forwards accordingly. 

For a human comparison, it would be somewhat akin to oscillating between reading from your computer screen with both eyes, and then focusing independently with each eye on the walls on either side of the room, then back to looking at the computer screen again, every second or so.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Buds Bursting

Despite almost two weeks of freezing temperatures and constant snow, we found these fresh new leaves sprouting from elder Sambucus nigra twigs in Durham city yesterday. Unlike most trees and shrubs, common elder doesn't form closed winter buds gripped by tough bud scales. Instead it forms open leafy buds, that can sprout into new growth at the first available opportunity.

Nearby we found Sambucus racemosa, a relative of our native elder that has been introduced from mainland Europe into North East England and is more commonly found in Scotland. You can see a  photo of the plant in flower by clicking here. Unlike our native elder, which produces deep purple, almost black fruit, this species carries bunches of larger scarlet fruits. It also differs from the native species in producing these rather attractive winter buds, whose bud scales are already beginning to loosen.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The Do-nothing Option

When we went walking (or should I say slithering) in the increasingly slushy snow today the snow surface was littered with these ash keys, torn off by gusty winds yesterday. How many will germinate and how many of those will be resistant to ash die-back is debatable, but since the trees produce these seeds in vast numbers it's likely that some will reach maturity. 

During our walk we passed through two quite different new woodlands.

This was the first - a Woodland Trust site where thousands of saplings of several species, including ash, have been planted in tree shelters over the past couple of years. The young trees have a good chance of establishment but it will be a very even-aged woodland when it matures. I can understand why woodlands are planted like this - it looks like an impressive amount of work that will turn grassland into woodland in the shortest possible time - but the next field that we walked through, with a different owner, revealed a different strategy.

This footpath runs through what was, until eight years ago, a pasture. On the right is old woodland. No one has planted anything in the pasture - the wind and the birds have done all the tree planting. The result is already a woodland of five metre-tall birches, three metre tall ash saplings and metre tall oaks. Their seeds have been planted by the wind and jays - no charge, no grant funding required. There's also a fair sprinkling of alder, rowan and holly. 

The only management that this site is receiving is the cutting of a few glades where there are some fine patches of marsh orchids and some trimming to keep the footpaths clear. There's already a shrub layer developing of wild roses and bramble. 

I suppose it's at the stage that is disparagingly referred to as scrub, but in summer it already hosts several butterfly species, a decent range of flowers and plenty of warblers. The birches, which are presently dominant, are short lived trees and by the time the oaks become substantial trees they'll be moribund and will contribute to the dead wood layer on the woodland floor, which is such a valuable habitat for fungi, beetles and a host of other invertebrates.

I know which method of woodland establishment I prefer - let nature take its course. Of course, this isn't the most desirable option when you are a charity that has spent a lot of money donated by members to buy land, who want to see evidence that a woodland is being created PDQ. 

I should say that I'm a supporter of the Woodland Trust's objectives and particularly admire the way in which they encourage the public to participate in woodland creation and encourage everyone to visit the woodlands that they own.  But I do also believe that the phase of scrub that naturally regenerating woodlands go through creates an incredibly valuable transitional habitat, and that allowing woodlands to re-establish naturally creates uneven-aged, mixed species stands of trees that are likely to be healthier and more biodiverse woodlands in the long run. 

Sometimes, in some circumstances, the do-nothing option is best.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013


Redpoll vs. Goldfinch. 

No matter how much food I put out, there's never enough for all of them!

Monday, January 21, 2013

Chaffinch with a poorly leg ...

This chaffinch with a swollen, deformed leg has been hanging around the bird table all day. For comparison, the bird below has a normal leg. The deformity is probably caused by tiny mites called Knemidocoptes, that burrow into the leg and cause symptoms similar to scabies in mammals, although chaffinch leg deformities can also be cause by a virus and a fungus.

There is an image of the Knemidocoptes mite here.

This weather makes life tough for healthy birds, so it must be especially difficult for an ailing one.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Pecking Order...

I've been watching the various finches visiting the bird table today and there's no doubt that siskins come top of the pecking order in terms of sheer aggression. On several occasions I saw them compete successfully with greenfinches, which are 50 per cent larger, for sunflower seeds. When it comes to thistle seeds, they also intimidate the larger goldfinches. And when they aren't fighting other species they fight amongst themselves. Small birds with a lot of attitude ....

Friday, January 18, 2013

A Force of Nature ....

The whole country is gripped by snow and ice - our transport network grinds to a halt - schools close - panic buying in supermarkets. 

Meanwhile, along the river Wear near Durham city this morning, these sallow catkins were shrugging off their bud scales, ready to bloom as soon as it warms up a little bit. 

Nature is irrepressible......

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Shiver Stabilisation System

I was so cold  and shivering so much when we walked along the river Wear near Durham this afternoon that I could hardly hold the camera still....... which made these pictures a severe test of Panasonic's image stabilisation system. Even dead hogweed umbels are attractive when they're covered in a rime of frost.

I takes more than sub-zero temperatures to stop gorse flowering.


Today's Guardian Country Diary focuses on mosses, which continue to grow in winter - even when most of the other vegetation in the countryside is dormant. This is really their season, when there's plenty of water, little shading from taller plants or woodland leaf canopies and when - on milder days - they can make rapid growth. 

With little else in the plant world to explore at the moment, this is a good time to appreciate these durable little plants which were amongst the first to colonise the land surface and have survived as a group for half a billion years.

These are a few species from my neck of the woods....

Thuidium tamariscinum (Common Tamarisk Moss), growing in woodland

Plagiomnium undulatum (Hart's tongue Thyme-moss), another woodland species

Homalothecium sericeum, Silky Wall Feather moss, common on shaded tops of dry stone walls 

Fissidens bryoides, Lesser Pocket-moss, often found on clay soils on ditch banks

Rhytidiadelphus triquetrus, Big Shaggy-moss, on a woodland edge

Hypnum cupressiforme,Cypress-leaved Plait-moss, with spore capsules, often on tree branches and rotting logs

Hypnum cupressiforme,Cypress-leaved Plait-moss - the leaves are curved inwards so the shoots look as though they're plaited.

Plagiomnium affine, Many-fruited Thyme-moss, has unusually large leaves. Growing here on the shady banks of an beck running through Hamsterley Forest.

Polytrichum commune,Common Haircap, growing in a wet hollow on open moorland.

Rhytidiadelphus squarrosus, Springy-turf moss, often in poorly drained grassland

Pseudoscleropodium purum, Neat Feather-moss, grows in grassland and has stout shoots that look as though they've been inflated.

Sphagnum sp., Bog moss, which forms peat bogs

Syntrichia ruralis subsp. ruraliformis, Sand-hill Screw-moss, forms extensive mats on the surface of sand dunes between Warkworth and Alnmouth on the Northumberland coast.

The Mosses and Liverworts of Britain and Ireland: a Field Guide, published by the British Bryological Society  is an excellent guide to identifying our moss flora.

For more mosses, click here