Sunday, January 29, 2023


 There are four pots of winter-flowering violas on a table just outside our living room window. Most days, this wren visits, searching through the plants for something edible. As far as I can tell, it spends most of its time picking tiny aphids from the plants, using that curved, pointed bill with forensic dexterity. 

Thursday, January 26, 2023

Some lovely liverworts

 This is probably the best time of year to look for liverworts, when they are actively producing new shoots and before taller vegetation grows up around them and often hides them in spring. Here are a few that I've found recently.

Great scented liverwort aka snakewort Conocephalum conicum, growing on a wet, shady retaining wall. This species has a powerful, agreeable scent when you crush it, which to me smells like Duraglit metal polish with citrus undertones. Prominent air pores and the polygonal pattern on the surface, give it a scaly, reptilian appearance.

Pellia endiviifolia, Endive Pellia, a thalloid liverwort whose new growth in autumn and winter consists of irregular, frilly extensions from the end of each flat thallus lobe. I also found this one on a permanently wet, shady retaining wall.

Plagiochila asplenoides, Greater Featherwort, a leafy liverwort that I found growing on a wet, shady bank in open deciduous woodland in Teesdale. One of the commonest leafy liverworts in woodland.

Plagiochila porelloides, Lesser Featherwort. A smaller, more compact Plagiochila species with darker green leaves. I found this one growing in crevices in a wet, shady retaining wall. 

Metzgeria falcata, Forked veilwort, a small thalloid liverwort that I found growing on the bark of an old beech tree, at the point where rain trickles down the trunk. The thin, flat thallus forks near the tip. 

Tuesday, January 24, 2023

Crows versus Magpies


Magpies have nested at the bottom of our garden annually for about twenty years. Until last year they returned every spring to the massive heap of sticks in the centre of an old hawthorn, which was well hidden. Last year they built a new one in a fast-growing Norway maple, about ten feet higher than their previous nest and very exposed to potential predators. A pair of magpies have been standing guard over the nest since late December, but now it looks as though they are being evicted by carrion crows.

A single crow turned up yesterday morning, pecking at twigs in the nest and evidently rearranging them for its own comfort. It provoked a furious and very noisy reaction from the magpies.

The magpies made a lot of fuss but never approached within pecking range of the crow's beak.

Then the crow started calling and within a couple of minutes its mate turned up, provoking more fury from the magpies.

So it seems that the pair of crows have taken over. The magpies are still loitering, but the crows came back this morning. It will be interesting to see how this conflict develops, and who will lay eggs in the nest.

Sunday, January 15, 2023

Winter bloomer

Last week we found this very early-blooming spurge laurel Daphne laureola coming into bloom on the bank of the river Tyne, near Hexham in Northumberland. I know this plant from one other location, in Wolsingham, Co. Durham, where it may well be of garden origin, but this Tyneside population, of about ten plants (three of flowering size) is the first I've found in Northumberland and it might be native. The black fruits, which ripen in summer, are eaten by birds that disperse the seeds, so it's never certain whether the plants are wild or are of garden origin. 

 Spurge laurel is a very easy plant to overlook unless it's in flower, because its glossy evergreen foliage has some resemblance to a small-leaved Rhododendron.

Click here for a post from 2014 about the Wolsingham plant and its pollinators.

The whole plant is poisonous, but despite its toxicity it was formerly used in what must have been very risky herbal medicine. This is what William Withering (who discovered the medicinal uses of foxglove) has to say about it in his Botanical Arrangement of all the Vegetables growing naturally in Great Britain, published in 1776: 'Very happy effects have been experienced from this plant in rheumatic fevers. It operates as a brisk and severe purgative. It is an efficacious medicine in worm cases; and upon many accounts deserves to be better known to physicians; but in less skilful hands would be dangerous, and it is possessed of considerable acrimony. The whole plant has the same qualities, but the bark of the root is the strongest. Dr. Alston fixes the outside dose at ten grains'.  


Tuesday, January 10, 2023

Some winter fungi

 Not many big fungi around in my neck of the woods at this time of year, but plenty of interesting smaller ones.

This is yellow brain fungus Tremella mesenterica, a parasite on another fungus called Peniophora that grows on dead gorse stems.

I first saw crimp gills Plicaturopsis crispa (upper and lower-side views above) near Durham city ten years ago (original post here), and since then they have become very common, growing on fallen dead birch and hazel branches

Candle snuff Xylaria hypoxylon is very common on dead wood.

These are ivory coral Ramariopsis kunzei, growing in a local Scots pine plantation

Exquisite variable oysterling Crepidotus variabilis, on a dead twig.

Coral spot Nectria cinnabarina exists in two forms. The orange pustules are the asexual stage, producing conidiospores. Eventually, they give way to the cinnabar-coloured sexually reproducing form, that introduces genetic variability into the population. 

Tuesday, January 3, 2023

Goldfinches, alders and dandelions


It's hard to over-estimate how important alder seeds are as food for small finches in winter. Siskins love them, but so do goldfinches, like these that I watched on a walk near my home yesterday. 

Goldfinches are also fond of dandelion seeds and, although the main season for these had long passed, there are always late-flowering dandelions around. This goldfinch was feeding on dandelion and lawn daisy seeds on a grassy verge at the beginning of December.