Monday, March 23, 2015

Dive! Dive! Dive!

This beautiful drake goldeneye was at Tunstall reservoir near Wolsingham in Weardale this afternoon.


..... a flight of oystercatchers ... and ...

... very wary great crested grebes that are likely to nest here..

.... and singing chaffinches in the alders all around the reservoir

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Cold-Blooded and Spineless

Last Friday saw the launch of the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty Cold-Blooded and Spineless project. Over the next five years it will train volunteers and local wildlife groups to identify and map the distribution of invertebrate animals in the AONB, as well as working with schools and artists to encourage them to appreciate and celebrate the wealth of  smaller elements in the wildlife of the region.

You can read much more about the project at

After the various presentations at the launch, held at the Environmental Centre at Harehope Quarry near Frosterley in Weardale, we went on a short bug hunt. Predictably, there weren't many flying insects about in mid-March, although someone did catch this male mosquito with rather magnificent antennae.

But when we started turning over stones it was a different story.

Lots of ants

A common pygmy woodlouse Trichoniscus pusillus

I think this one is a young specimen of the common shiny woodlouse Oniscus asellus

Lots of black snake millipedes Tachypodoiulus niger

More millipedes, that I've yet to identify

Two very small snails, awaiting identification

Several species of springtail. In the picture above, showing the underside, you can see the forked furca folded under the tail, that it uses like a pole-vaulter's pole to catapult itself into the air.

Click here for more about springtails

A very fine devil's coach horse, with a formidable pair of needle-sharp jaws

Click here for more about devil's coach horses

Numerous ground beetles, including ....

..... this one that played possum when it was turned onto its back, and ... 

.... this one, that was carrying a hitch-hiker on its back, which ...

... looks like it might be a very small tick.

I haven't had time to ID these properly yet, but am posting them now so that those who found them can download the pictures.

It's amazing what you can find if a dozen people spend half an hour turning over stones, even if it is a cold March afternoon!

If you'd like to know more about the Cold-blooded and Spineless project, or would like to become involved, contact 

Friday, March 20, 2015

Solar eclipse

I'll be 75 (if I'm lucky!) before I see this here again - so pleased that the light cloud cover made the solar eclipse easily visible.

All the starlings went up to roost and the birds fell silent. Didn't affect the frogs though, that were still fornicating in the garden pond throughout.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Deconstructing Coltsfoot

Thursday's Guardian Country Diary is all about coltsfoot.

With its radiant yellow petals, it's one of those cheerful flowers that's a signpost on the path to spring, all the more striking because the flowers appear long before the foliage. They spear through the soil unnoticed, then open as soon as the sun comes out.

The plant grows from a creeping underground rhizome that stores starch - the fuel for that rapid burst of growth in spring. When the rhizomes are fragmented even small segments regenerate into a new plant, which is why it persists so well in urban environments, carried around and endlessly redistributed in developers' soil and rubble.

Part of its appeal lies in its extraordinary tenacity and tolerance of inhospitable habitats. This crowd of flowers appeared between the massive stone blocks that armour the sea wall against the waves at the mouth of the river Wear in Sunderland.

Coltsfoot is one of those familiar wild flowers that's a pleasure to see in spring, but it's one that is rarely closely examined. There are two kinds of florets in the inflorescence. The central core of around thirty disk florets open in centripetal sequence over a few days and have no petals. The surrounding ray florets are far more numerous - perhaps as many as two hundred.

A closer look reveals that the central disk florets are hermaphrodite, each with a ring of stamens and a central stigma that grows up through them, acting like a piston that pushes pollen ahead of it. Presumably these are capable of self-pollination, as well as presenting pollen to a visiting pollinator for onward transfer to another flower. Some books claim that the disk florets are entirely male, but in the flowers that I've looked at they have a stigma and stamens. The disk florets are enclosed in sepals, that open to form a pointed star.

The surrounding ray florets are female only, with a longer, thinner stigma that divides into two near its tip, ready to receive pollen from a visiting insect. 

Here's s closer view of a central disk floret, with a pile of pollen perched on the tip of its stigma that has forced its way up through the surrounding tube of stamens. 
Stigmas of the female ray florets are visible on the left.

Closer still, and here you can see the receptive surface of the stigma of a disk floret, with its surrounding tube of stamens after it has forced its way up through them. In this case the pollen has been brushed off the stigma surface, perhaps by a visiting insect.

Here you can see there that stigmatic papillae - minute finger-like projections where pollen attaches when these stigmas are self-pollinated.

A single disk floret, removed from the inflorescence.

Pollen grains adhering to the surface of the stigmas of the all-female ray florets, after a visit by a pollinator carrying pollen.

Unpollinated ray floret stigmas of a newly-opened inflorescence, with their narrow, strap-shaped petals.

Comparison of a ray floret (upper left) with its stigma and petal and a disk floret (right) with its stigma and stamens. The slender structures at their base are the hairs that will grow after pollination and form the pappus - the parachute of hairs that will carry away the ripe seed on the wind.

One curious feature of these two forms of floret is that their stigmas and styles are so different - slender in the female florets but much more robust the the central disk florets where they perform a dual function, of pollen presentation and a site for self-pollination. Both appear to have ovaries at their base but I need to have another look after pollination to see if seeds are formed in both and whether, if they do, they are identical.

Coltsfoot is one of many examples of common wild flowers that are far more complicated that they seem. They are remarkably complex, intricate mechanisms that have evolved to compete for the few pollinators that are around in early spring - and to ensure that both cross- and self-pollination can occur in the same inflorescence.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Ruff Stuff

This cuckoo pint aka wild arum aka lords and ladies aka Arum maculatum - and scores of other names - has been growing in our compost heap. Digging it up to transplant it into the garden revealed its underground tuber.

Cuckoo pint's rapid growth in spring is fuelled by the starch stored in its tuber, and in 16th. century Elizabethan England this was used to starch, and so stiffen, the ruffs that royal courtiers wore around their necks. John Gerard, in his Herbal or 1597, wrote a description of the perils of starch extraction from this poisonous plant:

"The most pure and white starch is made of the roots of Cuckow-pint; but most hurtful to the hands of the Laundresses that hath the handling of it, for it choppeth, blistereth, and maketh hands rough and ragged and withall smarting". 

Some examples of elaborate ruffs, that would have been supported with a wire frame as well as with starch:

Public domain image source:

Public domain image source:

Public domain image source:

For more spectacular examples and a history of the Tudor ruff, click here

It's surprising, given the poisons that are present in cuckoo pint, that its starch was also used as a food known as Portland sago. Here's a description from C. Pierpoint Johnson's The Useful Plants of Great Britain: a Treatise,of 1863:

'The root is thick and tuberous; while fresh, it is extremely acrid and poisonous, but its injurious qualities are capable of being destroyed by heat, so that when well baked it becomes edible, and, consisting principally of starch, is nutritious. In the Isle of Portland the roots of the Arum are collected and eaten by the peasantry, and some years ago a kind of farina was prepared from them, and sold as Portland sago or Portland arrow-root, but little is now made. In Switzerland the fresh roots are used as a substitute for soap. The juice is a purgative, but far too violently so to use used as a physic.'

Needless to say, cuckoo pint should never be eaten, cooked or uncooked' those Portland islanders were probably poisoning themselves in ways that medical science at the time would not have been able to diagnose.