Tuesday, March 26, 2024

Kingfisher on the river Wear in Durham city


The river Wear begins its great loop around Durham cathedral peninsula here, at Elvet bridge. It’s always a busy spot. Aside from the rowing crews and scullers training for regattas, there are tourists in hired rowing boats and a constant passage of joggers, cyclists and walkers along the riverbank footpath. Mostly busy people on their way to somewhere, but it’s often a good place to just stand and stare: there can be interesting birds here. In winter there were goosanders fishing. In early spring little grebes took up residence for a while: energetic divers that we timed submerged for twenty seconds, leaving us guessing where they might reappear, sometimes popping up just a few feet away from the bank.  

The footpath was busy today. As I reached a narrow, elevated section of the path I moved over against the wall to make way for a rowing coach, balanced precariously on his bike as he chased his novice crew and bellowed encouragement from the bank. While he passed I glanced over the wall, towards the river and there was a kingfisher, perched on an overhanging willow. A perfect spot for fishing, where the water is clear, where sunlight glints on silver scales of fish that congregate in the warm shallows.

We stared at each other for what can only have been a few seconds, but these birds seem to concentrate surrounding energy and release it in a mesmerising azure and orange spark, an electric shock of plumage that makes time stand still. Totally unexpected, completely captivating: a gift of a bird.

And then it was gone, streaking off upriver, skimming the water, streaking past the oarsman and disappearing under Elvet bridge. King of the river.


Thursday, March 21, 2024

Early spring in the Derwent Walk Country Park, Gateshead

 Some pictures from a walk last week in the Derwent Walk Country Park, Winlaton Mill, Gateshead.

Silver birches and willows, seen from the top of the Nine Arches railway viaduct over the river Derwent. The buds of the birches take on a purplish hue at this time of year, as they begin to swell, while the willows have an orange tint.
Carrion crow. Handsome birds, with a hint of blue iridescence in their plumage.
A fine display of colt'sfoot

Dutch rush Equisetum hyemale spore cones beginning to disperse spores. An uncommon plant, but there are some fine patches of it beside the footpath.
Golden saxifrage in full flower in a ditch beside the old railway line.

A heron with some fine chest plumes, feeding in the river Derwent.
Beard lichen Usnea sp. Remarkable that this pollution-sensitive species is now established here, when you consider that this was formerly a location for coal mines, an ironworks and the Derwenthaugh coking plant that only closed down in 1986.

A magpie in one of the meadows
Primroses in flower
A soaring red kite

Toads coming out of hibernation in the woodland, heading for Clockburn lake, on the site of the old coking plant
Wood anemones in flower in woodland beside the river Derwent

Tuesday, March 19, 2024

Fence post lichen garden

Maybe it's time someone produce a survey of the flora of rotting fence posts. There are so many fascinating and often beautiful examples of these miniature gardens, colonised by mosses, lichens, fungi and flowering plants, where the water retentive end-grain of the wood provides just enough moisture for the organisms to survive throughout the year. 
Pixie-cup lichens Cladonia spp. are some of the commonest colonisers. I noticed this exquisite example on the site of the former Brancepeth colliery at Willington in County Durham.


Tuesday, March 12, 2024

Rusty groundsel

 To many gardeners it's a weed; to botanists it's a wild flower; to ecologists it's a ruderal - a primary coloniser of disturbed ground. Call it what you will, groundsel Senecio vulgaris is a remarkable plant. It flowers all-year-round, produces seeds by self-pollination without the aid of pollinators and can thrive in an extraordinary range of habitats. 

Tenacious two-inch-tall plants can grow in a crack in the pavement and produce a single flower. Bushy, lush plants growing in a nutrient-rich farmyard can produce hundreds of flowers and thousands of seeds, which are carried away on the wind but are also eaten by finches, though the seeds can also pass unharmed through a bird's gut and germinate successfully. The seeds also have a covering of microscopically small hairs that extend when wet and help the seed to stick to animals' feet. 

The generation time of a groundsel plant is often around three months, so in a single year,  in favourable conditions, a single seedling can give rise to a million descendants. 

A wild flower for all seasons, then, and a plant on a world tour, taken to North America and Australia by European migrants long ago.


The name groundsel comes from the Old English word grundeswilage, meaning ground swallower. I always imagined that the generic name, Senecio, derived from the Latin senex, meaning 'old man' referred to the greyish-white whiskery plumes of its airborne seeds, but the real explanation can be traced back to botanist William Turner in 1538, who wrote that 'when the wynde bloweth it away, then it appeareth like a bald headded man, therefore it is called Senecio' ..... and in the photo below you can see what he meant.

Groundsel has an Achilles heel, a rust fungus called Puccinia lagenophorae, which has an interesting history. It is an Australian fungus, that infected groundsel there and was imported into the UK on groundsel that accidentally made the return journey to the UK, most likely with imported horticultural plants, and was first noted here in 1961. It has since spread throughout Britain and somehow crossed the Atlantic, first being observed on groundsel plants there in 2001.

Groundsel rust, being an efficient parasite, doesn't kill its host outright but does weaken it and render it susceptible to other fungal pathogens, like mildews.

The spore cups of Puccinia lagenophorae are quite beautiful when you look at them like this, magnified under a low-power microscope, appearing like tiny sunbursts with sunbeams formed from radiating chains of spores. 

Sunday, March 10, 2024

Wren finds food in mossy crevices

When I'm looking out of the kitchen window early in the morning I often see this little wren rootling around in the front garden. Here it's pecking tiny animals from the moss that grows between the paving bricks in the garden path. I often see people pressure-washing away the moss that grows in the crevices in block paving, which seems a pity, since mosses are home to an enormous range of tiny organisms that sit at the bottom of food chains. One way to make a garden more wildlife friendly is to encourage the moss growth.

Saturday, March 2, 2024

Bullfinches eating cherry plum blossom

 Cherry plum Prunus cerasifera is in full bloom here in County Durham and its blossom is attracting bullfinches, that feed on the flower buds. You could almost say that their territory is defined by the availability of fruit tree blossom buds. This cock bird is one of a family party that can always be seen from a footpath along a disused railway line that's bordered by wild cherry, blackthorn, cherry plum, crab apple, and pear trees that must have grown from discarded cores, providing flower buds from now through until May. Later in the year I often see them feeding on seeds of dandelions, docks and brambles.