Long tailed tits

I have been writing a short piece in the Grantham Canal Society newsletter each month for the last three years – I thought it would be fun to share these little snippets on here! If you would like to subscribe to the digital newsletter which drops into your inbox once a month, or look at older issues, visit their website here:

January 2018 – Long tailed tits

A walk down the towpath in January is likely to be accompanied by the flutter of wings and warning calls as birds forage in the path-side hedgerows. One of the smallest species in the UK is likely to be among them, but far from being discreet they make their presence disproportionately known as they forage.

Long tailed tits, weighing just 9g, are highly social birds – they move through the landscape in flocks of closely related individuals, maintaining a shrill ‘si-si-si’ call-and-response as individuals keep in touch. Their aim, at this time of year especially, is to forage for enough high-value food to keep their tiny bodies warm enough to survive. They seek invertebrate prey by preference, capitalising on their low weight to pick food such as moth eggs as well as other invertebrates from the higher reaches of twigs and leaves which their heavier counterparts are unable to reach.

At night, the flock remains together, nestling down in a shrub or tree to form a dense ball with just their tails sticking out. As spring marches on, they will be building their tiny nests out of moss, lichen and spiders webs, lined with feathers. Interestingly, they are also social at nesting time – they will try to pair up and nest on their own but if unsuccessful, they will help at the nest of a close relative.

Listen out as you walk this winter – the distinctive call will alert you to the presence of these charming little ‘flying teaspoons’!

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Long tailed tit on hawthorn – image kindly provided by Ryan Clark

Fieldfares

I have been writing a short piece in the Grantham Canal Society newsletter each month for the last three years – I thought it would be fun to share these little snippets on here! If you would like to subscribe to the digital newsletter which drops into your inbox once a month, or look at older issues, visit their website here:

January 2016 – Fieldfares

Fieldfares and redwings are two thrush species which arrive in the UK for the winter each year, having spent the summer in their breeding grounds in Central Europe. The UK has had unusually mild conditions this year which has led to lower numbers than usual, but October and November still saw a good influx.

The Grantham Canal is always a reliable place to find chattering flocks of fieldfares which work their way along the hedgerows in search of the dogrose hips, hawthorn haws and blackthorn sloes, as well as the less obvious ivy berries which form a vital part of their diet in January and February when the best of the berries have been stripped. Their diet also includes insects, fruits and grains.

They are often quite cautious of human presence and their distinctive flight-call – a harsh “tsak tsak tsuk” – will often signal them moving ahead of you along the towpath.

Fieldfares and redwings often fly in mixed flocks but are easily told apart. Redwings are a rich warm brown with rusty-red underwings – similar in size to a song thrush – with a bold white line across the eyebrow. Fieldfares have more white/grey colour about their bodies and are slightly larger – similar in size to a blackbird. They lack the bold red underwing and the black supercilium which distinguish the redwing.

Both of these winter thrushes tend to stay with us through until April or early May when they head back to their breeding territories in warmer climes.

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Fieldfare feeding on cotoneaster berries

Green hellebores

There’s something about the subtler flowers which has a strange draw for me – after seeing these beautiful emerald green flowers pop up at the beginning of the year on the #wildflowerhour feed, I knew I had to track them down.

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Green hellebore – Helleborus viridis – at Dolebury Warren

Green hellebore – latin name Helleborus viridis – is a native species of hellebore found in the UK and widely across central and western Europe. It is a relative of the garden varieties which might be more familiar as late winter/early spring flowers in an ornamental setting. Hellebores are actually a member of the buttercup family – the arrangement of petals and sepals as well as the shape and structure of the leaves gives this away on more careful scrutiny.

It is generally found in shady habitats such as woodland glades or hedgerow banks, often preferring limestone or chalk. Populations are said to be relatively stable, often maintaining their size and distribution over many years with little apparent change. The distribution of this species in the UK is generally confined to the south, although individual populations do occur in the north.

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Green hellebore – Helleborus viridis – at Dolebury Warren

I was down in the Mendips in late February and in leiu of a known site, I had a google around and found reference to green hellebore in the Woodland Trust site – Dolebury Warren. It was listed as part of the management plan for one of the compartments but without a map, this could be anywhere in the woodland! Not to be deterred, I headed off on an 8-mile round trip which took me across the exposed limestone grasslands and down into the woods through evergreen plantations, gnarled horse chestnuts and ruins reclaimed by the forest. Finally I found what I was hoping for – gathered at the base of the woods where the trees meet the fields.

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Green hellebore – Helleborus viridis – at Dolebury Warren

Flowering time is early in the year – generally February and into March – making it one of the earliest flowering spring species. Plants grow to around 60cm high and often form stands thanks to their rhizomatous roots.

Historically, this species was used to treat worms, but such are its toxic properties that inappropriate administration posed a significant risk of harming the patient as much as the parasite! All parts of the plant are poisonous leading to severe vomiting and seizures.

 

Spring Snowdrops

The first of February is Imbolc – the Gaelic festival marking the end of winter and the start of spring. Much of the vegetation still seems very much set in its midwinter torpor, but snowdrops are in full flower promising more signs of spring will follow in their wake.

Snowdrops are probably not native, but have been naturalised for so long that they have gathered many regional folk names including “February Fair-Maids”, “Eve’s Tear”, “dewdrops” and “Mary’s Tapers”. They are classified as ‘neophytes’ which quite literally means ‘new plant’ from the Greek néos meaning new, and phutón meaning plant. In the UK, neophytes are alien species which escaped into the wild after 1500 AD.

Snowdrops are often planted but will quickly naturalise if left to their own devices – they often grow well under trees and in woodland, but are equally at home in parkland and gardens.

There are several species of snowdrop you might find growing naturalised in the UK but the most common is Galanthus nivalis – shown in the photograph. The genus name ‘Galanthus’ derives from the Greek gála meaning milk and ánthos meaning flower; whilst the species name ‘nivalis’ is from the latin and means snow-like. Other species with bright grass-green leaves, and ornamental varieties such as double-flowers are also found planted, especially in churchyards and cemeteries.

Below are a series of photographs taken in Grantham Cemetery at the beginning of 2019.

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Arching snakelike amongst the winter grasses
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The appearance of snowdrops amongst the black silouettes of winter has led to them generating strong cultural associations with rebirth, new life and the end of winter
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Snowdrops naturally grow in clumps, commonly beneath trees and  in woodland, but the eye is always drawn to the one which stands apart
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This group shot reminded me of an old sepia-tinted family portrait from a century ago
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The flowers buds are often closed up when first emerge but the petals tend to spread and become more open as the flower matures
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These shots were taken in Grantham Cemetery with the old lime lines forming the sillouetted branch patterns in the background
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Grace under pressure – these flowers are well adapted to being buffeted by winter winds and rain whilst maintaining their composure
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The cultural association between snowdrops, new life and rebirth may be one of the reasons they are often found in cemeteries and churchyards – the fresh green leaves and snow-white flowers set against the dark cold stone commemorating lives past is a perfect juxtoposition

 

2018 in Trees

It might sound simple, but trees are without doubt one of the things which makes me happiest in this world. Their architectural limbs during winter; that joyous first flush of green in the springtime; the cacophony of life they support in the summer and the glowing hues of autumn – all through the year they can lift the spirit into their boughs. Here are a few of my favourite photographs from 2018.

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This photograph shows the veins in a lime seed wing with the tree in the background – I love the echo beteen the parent tree and the wing which will take its tiny progeny to a new place to germinate.
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We walked the Peddar’s Way in spring this year – from Thetford all the way to the coast at Holme next the Sea. The green tracks with overarched by mature trees were a joy to walk beneath.
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Another photograph taken along the Peddar’s Way – I love the imagery of the broadleaf trees with lances drawn against the arrayed army of conifers in the plantation; however these are more likely a stress response to the intense shading of the industrial plantation.
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Scilly is one of the places in the UK where elms have held out against Dutch Elm disease – likely primarily due to their relative isolation from the mainland. This was taken of young growth in the centre of St Mary’s
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This photograph was taken in mid-summer but the fallen lime wings made it look as though autumn had come early. This green arched footpath leads down towards Sedgewick Meadows in Grantham
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Limes seem to have figured highly in my photographs this year – this is a lime avenue in a Northamptonshire Estate where we undertook tree climb & inspect surveys one misty morning in autumn
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One of my favourite trees in Richmond Park which brings back memories of my dissertation there many years ago – the Royal Oak is estimated to be 750 years old!
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The silver birch is a typical pioneer tree species of Sherwood, well suited to the sandy, heathy soils. These were taken as the bracken leaves browned in November.
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Whilst obviously not a fan of the inert conifer plantations which pass for ‘woods’ in too many places, there is an undeniable beauty to their straight, uniform structures especially when the light is right!
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It’s hard to beat the light in a beechwood in early Autumn – beech rarely form seminatural woodlands in the midlands and north of the country but it didn’t stop the directors of Robin Hood – Prince of Thieves from depicting this site (Burnham Beeches) as Sherwood Forest!
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An amazing old stump amongst the holly and green in Burnham Beeches – you need to stand beside it to appreciate quite how large this structure is!
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A wonderfully figurative tree at Burnham Beeches back at the beginning of autumn when the leaves were just about to turn…

 

 

2018 in Wildflowers

As anybody who follows my twitter feed will know, wildflowers are a constant source of inspiration and fascination for me. Here are a few of my favourite finds from 2018

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This tiny forget-me-not is called changing forget-me-not because of the way the petal colour changes as the flowers mature – they start off yellow/cream and brighten to blue in time
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Red campion is a common wildflower in the midlands, especially in shady habitats like hedgerows and woodland edges. It can be a beautifully architectural plant
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Wood sorrel is a woodland wildflower of early spring – this was taken in the Quantock Hills in a pine plantation.
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Wood anemone are a characteristic indicator of ancient woodland – spreading at a rate of only a few metres per year, they are testement to the continuity of the habitat
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Green winged orchids are one of the first to flower in the spring – I am lucky enough to live very close to Muston Meadows which has a stunning display each year
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An ancient woodland in South Wales rewarded me with herb paris this year – the first time I’ve seen this species in perfect flower in the UK
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Pasque flowers are a real rarity these days, but are emblamatic enough to be the designated County Flower of two different counties in England. This one taken at Barnack Hills and Holes NNR
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A sea of English Bluebells with a mighty fallen oak branch to lend character to the sunlit scene
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Oxlip is one of our rarest wildflowers – the ancient woodland of Hayley Wood near Cambridge is one of the best places to enjoy them amongst the bluebells
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There can be few sights more synonymous with springtime that the white of greater stitchwort and the bright blue of the bluebell amongst the fresh green leaves
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The limestone grasslands which punctuated the Peddar’s Way in May rewarded us with these salad burnet – tiny red stars set within a globular flower head
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A trip to see the fly orchids in Bedford Purleius NNR has become something of an annual tradition now – they never fail to delight!
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A new species for me this year and a wonderful treasure hunt to find it – violet helleborine in Bedford Purleuis NNR
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Small but stunning – the arable flora on St Mary’s, Scilly away from the industrial scale agriculture of the mainland meant a host of scarce arable wildflowers persist, such as this small-flowered catchfly
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Yellow bartsia – a relative of yellow rattle and eyebright – was another first for me on the Isles of Scilly
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Pale toadflax established on a railway arch near the Thames
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Black nightshade is a member of the same family as potato and tomato and could be found flowering right up until Christmas!
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Wild snake’s head fritillaries flowering in Portholme Meadow, Huntingdon
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Cowslips flowering along the cycle path which passes along the Grantham Canal in early springtime
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Harebell flowering in the dry grasslands in the meadows above Grantham
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Early purple orchid amongst the bluebells and greater stitchwort flowers in a woodland edge in Lincolnshire

2018 in Insects

This is a quick roundup of some of my favourite insect encounters of 2018 – there are some beautiful and highly varied species in the UK which reward the close observer!

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These are variously known as feather-footed or hairy-footed flower bee and are one of the first species to appear in the spring. The males are females are a dark black whilst the males are a rusty brown and spend much of their time searching out females to mate with – a female happily feeding on a flower will often have 2-3 males hovering at a not-so-discreet distance waiting to pounce when they think the moment is right!
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Common blue butterflies at Holwell Nature Reserve (Leicestershire & Rutland Wildlife Trust)
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A dead bumblebee at Bedford Purleis NNR which has been found by a party of wood ants who were very slowly transporting it back to their nest
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An enormous roman snail at Aston Clinton Ragpits – these are the largest snails in the UK and are around the size of a golf ball!
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Bee flies are excellent bumblebee mimics which appear early in the season – they parasitise the nests of solitary bees by flicking their eggs into the entrance hole. This one is hovering at a garlic mustard flower to feed.
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Hornets may have a fearsome reputation but they are quite charming creatures up close – this one was trapped overnight and needed a sweet treat to help it back on its way the next day!
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This year saw temperatures remain relatively mild all the way through to December – this wasp was photographed on ivy flowers just 12 days before Christmas!
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With its mottled green and white underwings, the orange-tip butterfly is beautifully camouflaged on a cow parsley flower to spend the night
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This amazing wasp had captured a spider, removed its legs and was busy taking it back to its nest sight – a rather grusome but truly impressive sight!
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This common blue butterfly was settled on a dandelion clock to wait out a rain shower along the Peddar’s Way
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A cockchafer beetle – just about to take flight – in this photo it has just opened its wing-casings to reveal the wings beneath
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A red-tailed bumblebee male leaving a knapweed flower
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A marbled white settled amongst the dry grasses of a mid-summer meadow
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A cinnebar moth amongs the grass in early summer
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A devil’s coachorse – these ground beetles will raise their tail to threaten any intruder in a quite convinving show of bravado!
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A small copper settled on a yarrow flower in early autumn
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Mother shipman moth feeding in a sheltered valley just north of Grantham which is swathed in species-rich limestone grassland flowers
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Memories of summer lunchtime walks in the meadows above Grantham – the long drought gave the grasslands a parched appearance but they were still buzzing with life including this leafcutter bee
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Pollinators beware – you’d need to be on high alert to spot this beautifully camouflaged spider lying in wait on a yarrow flower!