Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Foul-mouthed Fulmars

Thursday's Guardian Country Diary is about the fulmars that nest on the magnesian limestone cliffs at Dawdon on the Durham coast. There are only a few pairs - fulmars don't nest at the high densities that some other seabirds favour. At this time of year they spend a lot of time on their nesting ledges, engaged in their chattering calls and mutual preening, strengthening pair bonds, and when they're not doing this ...

...... they just glide serenely along the cliffs. I could watch fulmars for hours - just a few shallow  beats of those long, narrow wings and then they glide effortlessly. They seemed to fly in a regular circuit, out over the sea then back inland, rising on the updraughts to skim along the top of the cliffs and then swoop down and sail past their nesting ledge. 

 If you stand still they fly past a little closer with every pass and have a good look at you, checking you out. 

This pair clearly had the best nesting ledge - a prime location with a relatively broad platform in the cliff face for their single egg, with a cavity behind and a superb view of the whole beach.

Then the peace of the afternoon was interrupted by this individual - a singleton, apparently without a mate, that had been flying circuits along the beach, passing closer to the nesting ledge with every pass until it finally decided to pay them a visit.

And that shattered the tranquillity of the afternoon. Here he is receiving a beakful of abuse from the sitting tenants, with the resident male unwilling to let the interloper within mutual preening distance of his mate.

So he left to resume gliding his solitary circuits of the beach. If you could translate what those two birds in the background were saying, it would be unrepeatable on a family blog

More fulmar pictures here

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Rampant Rust

This is Alexanders Smyrnium olusatrum flowering near Tynemouth castle at the mouth of the river Tyne, in May. At this time of year the flowers have yet to appear but there is a lot of lush growth in its glossy leaves. The plant is supposed to have been introduced as a pot herb by the Romans and it was widely grown as a spring vegetable for its edible stems and leaves for centuries, until it was replaced by celery . The feral populations that are frequently seen are usually the result of past cultivation.

One of the reasons why it may have fallen out of favour might be this rust fungus, Puccinia smyrnii. It distorts the leaves, causing them to swell, then erupts through the surface and releases spores before they wither. Many of the plants that we saw around Tynemouth castle today were heavily infected.

If I'd been a gardener, growing this plant in my kitchen garden, I'd be very disheartened.

More rust fungi here and here

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The beauty of the Commonplace

Last week I noticed this Goat'sbeard Tragopogon pratensis flowering amongst the litter beside a pavement in Shieldfield, Newcastle-upon-Tyne and brought one of the buds home, to watch it open in a vase. The alternative name for this plant is Jack-go-to-bed-at-noon because it's supposed to open in the morning and close around mid-day, but this one seemed to be a nonconformist that might more accurately be called Jack-go-to-bed-at 3pm.

Although it does produce the finest of all the 'dandelion clock' type seed heads the flower isn't one that I've ever really looked at closely - and when you do scrutinise it the bloom is rather beautiful. The petals on this plant seem to be more deeply incised that in all the wild flower guide illustrations that I've consulted, giving it a rather shaggy appearance.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Spring Stirring?

Teesdale: Goat willow bud scales beginning to lose their grip ........

Ryton Willows Nature Reserve, Newburn, Tyne Valley: reedmace seed heads breaking up and sheding seeds

Our garden, Co. Durham: First lesser celandine bloomed today

Teesdale: Hedge sparrow singing, volume turned up to 11, in foul weather

Teesdale: New fronds unfurling on maidenhair spleenwort fern

Hawthorn Dene, Durham coast: Fabulous display of snowdrops today

Friday, February 14, 2014

Mystery Boxes

These two very fine old box Buxus sempervirens trees stand beside the disused railway line (now the Tees Valley Railway Walk) near Mickleton in Teesdale. Box is slow-growing so I'd guess that this pair, which are almost four metres tall, must be quite old. The plant's specific epithet, sempervirens, means 'living for ever' and box has a reputation for longevity and indestructibility; Teesdale's notoriously severe winters clearly haven't done it any harm.

But who planted them? Box isn't native in County Durham. Gordon Graham's Flora and Vegetation of County Durham only mentions box as a species planted in parks and large gardens but these trees are out in the open countryside,and well away from buildings. My guess is that they were originally planted at the site of an old railway station or railway building  that has long-since disappeared.

Box foliage has a distinctly unpleasant smell when crushed.

Flower buds in the leaf axils. The tiny greenish-yellow flowers, without petals, open in April.

The wood is very close grained and hard, as might be expected of such a slow-growing woody plant, and was favourite material for wood engravers. It was also used for decorative additions to furniture, since it polishes well. 

In gardens it's often grown as a clipped shrub and Pliny, the Roman naturalist, mentions that it was grown and cut into topiary figures in Roman gardens. 

Old herbalists mention that a decoction of the leaves stimulates hair growth and turns it red.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014


Thursday's Guardian Country Diary explores the wonderful world of lichens that are the brightest objects on moorland in winter. Lichens like .....

...... this delightful Cladonia diversa (?), tipped with what looks like scarlet sealing wax. Those red tips are the apothecia, where microscopic flask-shaped asci shoot their fungal spores out into the breeze. To form another lichen they need to land close enough to the correct alga for the two to form a symbiotic union and develop into a lichen.

This is the moorland described in the Country Diary - a high, windswept path over Birkside Fell above Blanchland, in the Derwent valley on the Durham-Northumberland border. The high rainfall means that nutrients are rapidly leached out of the sandy soil. The area to the right is grouse moor, which from a distance seems like is a sea of dull brown vegetation, until .....

.... you look at what is going on at grouse-eye level, under the canopy of gorse bushes. There, at this time of year, the lichens are at their best and the mosses are actively growing too.

There's a wide range of lichen form and colour. I think this is Cladonia macilenta (?)

..... this looks like Peltigera lactucifolia (?)

.... and this, looking like a forest of tiny golf tees, is Cladonia pyxidata (?)

N.B. the (?) after the specific names mean that these are tentative IDs - I need to check them more carefully to be certain!

Monday, February 10, 2014

A Surfeit of Berries?

Back in the autumn of 2013 the local hedgerows were laden with berries but now most of those have been taken by members of the thrush family. So last week it was a surprise to find these wall cotoneaster Cotoeneaster horizontalis plants still carrying a spectacular crop of scarlet berries. The shrubs are growing in fissures in the cliff face in the old Ashes Great Limestone quarry at Stanhope in Weardale, in places that would only be accessible to birds. One large flock of waxwings could probably polish this whole crop off in a couple of hours. 

Cotoneaster horizontalis is native to western China and was introduced into British gardens in 1879. It was first recorded as a garden escape in 1940. It also grows on the walls of Stanhope castle, which about half a mile from the quarry.  

You can download a guide to the history of the quarry and to a circular walk around it by clicking here