Tuesday, April 30, 2013


I found this little needlefly which I think might be Leuctra hippopus [not too sure - this family of stoneflies (aka roll-winged stoneflies) has 13 genera with more than 300 species] on ramsons flowers beside the river Wear near Wolsingham a couple of days ago. It's one of the earliest of the stoneflies (Plecoptera) to hatch. This is a fast flowing, stony stretch of the river frequented by sea trout in autumn - stoneflies are good indicators of healthy, clean, well-oxygenated rivers. Characteristically, they fold their wings flat along their back and tend to be poor fliers, preferring to run rather than take to the air.

If the ID is wrong and anyone knows for sure what it should be I'd be glad to hear from them...

Monday, April 29, 2013

Ash flower buds

These flower buds of ash, which usually open about a month before the leaf buds, look like some strange kind of insect eggs or maybe caviar (not that I've ever eaten caviar). They are opening very late this year - these buds usually burst at the end of March or in early April.  Click here for more pictures of ash flowers in full bloom.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

The goose that thinks it's a duck...

We met this confused greylag when we were out walking in Weardale this afternoon. It seemed to think that it was a parent of these mallard ducklings and attacked anything that came near them, including me and someone's dogs that got curious about the infant mallards. The mother mallard seemed perfectly happy with this interspecific child-minding service and led the way, with the goose bringing up the rear.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Sneaky but risky.....

This blackbird snuck in under our radar and built her nest in an ivy-covered fence within a few feet of our windows. It'll be convenient for watching her progress but tense too - a grey squirrel uses the top of the fence as a highway every day and there are magpies nesting just two gardens away...

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Redshank Captain, but not as we know it........

Historically, one of the reasons why so few naturalists take an interest in mosses as opposed to, say, birds, is that very few mosses have ever had colloquial names in English conferred on them. So anyone with an aversion to Latin names (and there are plenty of those) tended to steer well clear of these obscure groups with unpronounceable names; unless you are in the company of died-in-the-wool bryologists it has been difficult to have a friendly chat about mosses that you've seen recently, unlike birders who can happily converse in hides for hours about bar-tailed godwits or whatever, without worrying that they'll appear to be overly academic or natural history snobs. Latin names, though essential, are a great conversation killer unless you are in like-minded company.

So there has been a democratizing and very worthy trend in field guides for some of the less well-known forms of wildlife - fungi and mosses and liverworts, for example - to invent common names for everything, so that everyone in the English-speaking world is on the same linguistic wavelength. 

This little moss, with the striking red capsule stalks (setae) and caps (calyptras)  set at a jaunty angle on its capsules, which has been known as Ceratodon purpureus since it was first named, has now been given the English name redshank (logically enough) in the latest moss field guide

So, if you are a bryologist, that'll get your ornithologist mates' attention, when you tell them you've been clearing your garden path of redshank with a pressure-washer hose.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Eider Duck and Chips

Today's Guardian Country Diary concerns a trip to Seahouses harbour, on what turned out to be a wet Sunday.

This is one of the best places I know of to watch eider ducks at close quarters because a flock always congregates in the harbour during spring courtship. Better still, they have a liking for chips, so if you chuck them a chip from your fish 'n chips they'll paddle within close camera range. The breeding plumage of the drakes is truly magnificent and their 'ah-hoooo' courtship calls charm onlookers, as well as the female ducks.

The female ducks' brown mottled plumage provides excellent camouflage when they sit amongst wrack-covered rocks at low tide, as well as famously warm insulation.

When they're afloat eider drakes are wonderfully sleek, rakish birds but there's a lot below the waterline that's rather less elegant....

.... including a portly belly, knobbly knees ....

.... and big feet, that give them the kick that they need for diving for crabs............ if there are no chips on the menu.

Click here for more pictures of eiders and their ducklings 

Click here for the excellent Farne Islands Blog, where eiders have recently begun nesting

Friday, April 19, 2013

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Propping up the banks........

Butterbur flower spikes are rapidly elongating all along the banks of local rivers here in County Durham. There is actually more butterbur biomass below ground than above at this time of year, although that situation reverses once the massive, rhubarb-like leaves develop fully in a few weeks' time.

The plant grows from a thick, branching underground rhizome that stores starch through the winter, enabling it to flower at the earliest opportunity, before the leaves expand and start photosynthesising. Sometimes winter floods expose some of the rhizomes with their mass of fibrous roots, that can play a valuable role in stabilising riverbanks.

Where there's no network of butterbur roots winter floods can rapidly erode riverbanks, as they have done here along the river Browney near Croxdale in Durham. A woven willow bank reinforcement has been installed by the Woodland Trust  to limit the damage and trap silt. 

A little further upstream along the Browney this remarkable display of what must easiliy be more than a 1000 butterbur inflorescences testifies to a dense mass of rhizomes below ground, that are doing a good job of stabilising the river bank.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Elm flowers

We lived in Warwickshire for a few years in the early 1970s and one of my abiding memories of the landscape there was of magnificent elm trees which, in spring, were covered in a haze of carmine red flowers. Dutch elm disease felled almost all the mature elms but hedgerow shrubby elm trees are still common throughout the country, sprouting from the roots of the old trees. 

We found these elms flowering along the river Wear near Wolsingham in Co. Durham yesterday, where there are a few that are reaching tree proportions and have grown to  about 12 metres tall. It will be interesting to see how well these specimens survive and whether they attract the attention of the bark beetle that carries the Dutch elm disease fungus.

Elm is still a common species, albeit in shrub rather than tree form, because it regenerates new shoots from its roots, even though it produces no viable seeds. It will be interesting to see whether ash trees regenerate shrubby growth in the same way once ash dieback disease takes hold..............

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Riotous spring

Any doubts that spring had finally arrived were dispelled yesterday by a honeybee trapped in our greenhouse (and safely liberated) .........

............ celandines coming into bloom all over the garden ...........

........ and frantic frog activity in the garden pond.

Since the frogs first emerged from hibernation the pond has frozen and thawed several times, but the chilly spring doesn't seem to have .....

.... dampened the frogs' ardour.

By this afternoon most of the females had left the pond, looking somewhat slimmer and leaving behind massive quantities of frog spawn.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Beachcombing 3

Rough weather in the Humber estuary a couple of weeks ago scoured a lot of interesting marine life from the seabed and cast it up on the shore. Last week, during a walk along the strand line Cleethorpes beach we found ....

.... numerous cuttlefish' bones' from common cuttlefish. These have been washed ashore in numbers all along the North East coast lately. I've found them on Warkworth beach in Northumberland recently and they've also been reported from the Yorkshire coast at Runswick bay.

There were plenty of the familiar common cockles, with the two valves of this one still joined by their ligament....

....... and some fine oyster shells.

I think this spindle-shaped whelk is the red whelk Neptunea antiqua rather than the common whelk Buccinum undatum.

An edible crab carapace

A cluster of slipper limpets Crepidula fornicata - you can read more about their bizarre sex life by clicking here

Common whelks Buccinum undatum - the lower image shows the operculum attached the the muscular foot, that seals the shell entrance when the foot is retracted.

Common starfish Asterias rubens, in an advanced state of decay

This strange object, again in an advanced state of decay, is the underside of a sun star, probably Crossaster papposus .....

... and these are the eggs of a common whelk, together with the bryozoan Flustra foliacea, also known as hornwrack (click here to see examples of living bryozoans)

But perhaps the most interesting stranding was this necklace shell, Polinices catenus, with its distinctive hollow spire ( known as an umbilicus) visible on the underside. The snail that lives in the necklace shell has a broad foot and uses it to plough through soft substrates, exposing buried bivalve molluscs whose shells it drills with its abrasive tongue. Its bivalve victims have a tell-tale, neat round hole in one of their valves..........

... like this banded wedge shell Donax vittatus

For more beachcombing, click here, here and here.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Little Egret

Any mention of Cleethorpes conjures up images of trippers, deck chairs, amusement arcades and candyfloss, but the seashore here is part of the Humber Estuary SSSI and includes a lot of good shore bird habitat, ranging from saltmarsh to muddy sediments that are important feeding sites for waders.

We watched this little egret catching small fish on the saltmarsh last week. They've been resident there for a few years now and it's remarkable how they have become a familiar element in the bird fauna, considering that not so long ago birders would have been jumping up and down with excitement at the sight of one of these exotic colonists. They are one of the good news stories for UK wildlife.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Stonechats and redpolls

The winter shades of brown still predominated when we followed the path behind Warkworth sand dunes on the Northumberland coast last weekend. The colours of this cock stonechat toned beautifully with the muted background hues.

This is his mate, in more subdued colours.

On the path behind the dunes high tides in the Aln estuary had left a thick layer of last year's decaying vegetation along the strand line, which had become a feeding ground for a flock of about 20 redpolls. Their plumage (apart from their red crown) matched this background exceptionally well.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Kirkhaugh Church

Today's Guardian Country Diary describes a visit to the unique Kirkhaugh church in the tiny Northumbrian hamlet of Ayle. It's unusual for two reasons: firstly because it is the only church in England dedicated to the Holy Paraclete (the Holy Spirit, symbolised by a dove) rather than to a saint; secondly it has a very unusual needle-sharp spire, the work of the first vicar, who was also the architect of the church. He was Rev. Octavius James, who rebuilt the church on the site of a Mediaeval ruin in 1869, incorporating some of the earlier church's remains but adding a spire like a tooth pick, said to have been inspired by something similar that he saw on his travels in Germany.

Octavius James died in 1889 in a fire in Clarghyll Hall near Alston, another of his architectural enterprises that was a converted 16th. century bastle house.

The interior of the church contains this rather fine marble memorial to a former Lord of the manor, Albany Featherstonehaugh, 'whose line became extinct in 1639'.

The churchyard outside contains this rather melancholy memorial.....

..... with a fine encrustation of lichens, while over against the churchyard wall ....

....... this headstone, whose inscription has been worn away by the Northumbrian weather, has been split in two by the trunk of a horse chestnut that must have been planted as a sapling too close to the grave, perhaps a century ago.

The horse chestnut, which seems to be perfectly healthy, is gradually engulfing the headstone.

Many of the old headstones are well worn and barely decipherable, but host a range of lichens that would probably keep a lichenologist amused for quite some time..

The most delightful inscription in the graveyard is this one, on the back of a headstone whose main inscription has been erased by weather and lichens. The epitaph describes the grave's anonymous occupant as:

A loyal Subject in his Life
A Good Husband to his Wife
A Father to his Children Dear
A Good Neighbour Lieth Here