New Year Plant Hunt 2018

BSBI‘s annual New Year Plant Hunt is a great way to experience this, as well as contribute your data to a national recording scheme. Everybody is welcome to get involved – even if this is just spotting a daisy on the lawn or gorse flowering by the roadside on your way to work!

I’ve walked the same New Year Plant Hunt route at the beginning of each month since January 2017 and thought it would be interesting to view the results of the January 2018 hunt in the context of the year passed.

I would caveat this by saying it is very sketchy data to base any assumptions on so this should be considered ‘observations and possible trends’ rather than anything more robust. It is a single transect, over a single year in a single geographic location. It is  also along a route which is incidentally prone to the machinations of land owners and council contractors being focused on streets, parks and carparks. This means that species which I know to have been in flower can disappear from the record because somebody has tidied up the only place in my transect where they grow. This could account for gaps in particular species which does not actually have any reflection on their ecology! Furthermore, these records may relate to a single individual with a single flower being found on the transect – it has nothing to do with abundance or dominance. I found one tatty cow parsley in flower in January 2018 but there were swathes of them flowering in  April 2017 – presence may relate to exceptions and outliers rather than reflecting standard flowering ecology.

The Constants

There are a number of species I picked up on the 2018 New Year Plant Hunt which I had found in flower every month of previous year along the same transect route. In all, 50% of the flowers I found in January 2018 had been recorded flowering along the transect in 9 or more months during the previous year.

The species recorded in every single month were daisy, ivy-leaved toadflax, white deadnettle and shepherd’s purse. Alongside these were a number of species where I had only missed them in either one or two months in the previous year – these included annual meadowgrass, sun spurge, oxford ragwort, common chickweed, snapdragon (naturalised), yarrow, Guernsey fleabane and petty spurge.

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The ‘Constants’ – these were from photographs taken throughout the year and not taken on the day – the dark start and lunchtime rain made photography difficult!

Interestingly, the missing months when I hadn’t found these individual species in flower were clustered around March/April time but in all cases, they had been consistently in flower since September. This could indicate a flowering season which is all year round, or could represent a long flowering season which begins in the late spring and continues to early spring depending on the winter weather for duration. It could also represent an anthropogenic phenomena I noticed which was that winter ‘weeds’ were often ignored in January to March but a colony was often wiped out when the weather warmed up and people turned their attention to de-greening the edges of pavements!

Long-season species

Those species found flowering in only nine months in 2017 continue the distribution trend noticed in the near-constants – feverfew and hedge mustard were found in January 2017 and 2018 but disappeared between February and April 2017 to then reappear and remain for the rest of the year. Hedgerow cranesbill and wall barley similarly disappeared between February and May and have been constant since.

Species with a lower number of records, perhaps considered more late-season than long-season, appeared in later-summer/autumn 2017 and persisted through the winter to January including bramble, blue fleabane and Canadian fleabane.

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The long- or late-season specialists – these were from photographs taken throughout the year and not taken on the day – the dark start and lunchtime rain made photography difficult!

These would accord with previous interpretations by BSBI scientists who concluded that most of the New Year Plant Hunt finds in 2017 were hangers-on from the last season rather than early arrivals from the new season. Late flowering and long flowering species might be expected to be particularly prone to this.

Winter/Spring Specialists

Several species recorded showed a markedly winter flowering period – winter heliotrope being the key example but alder and oragan grape also according with this pattern. Naturalised wood spurge and greater periwinkle also fit into this category, though their season seemed longer.

Cow parsley and  bittercress both showed a predominantly spring flowering pattern, but with sporadic flowering during the winter months as well.

Red dead nettle showed an interesting distribution – it went missing in the middle of the year between June and September but remained fairly constant otherwise. This almost indicates a winter-flowering strategy but with a much longer timeframe than things like alder which appear in flower only for a month or two. It could however be due to management removing the regular plants on my transect, resulting in an apparent gap in what is actually a constant species. Repeating the transects in 2018 would help clarify this!

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The winter or spring flowering specialists – these were from photographs taken throughout the year and not taken on the day – the dark start and lunchtime rain made photography difficult!

 

Conclusion

Accounting for the various caveats in the data, there do appear to be three key categories to which the species flowering on my 2018 New Year Plant Hunt accord. Those which flower almost year-round; those which have a late flowering distribution which hangs on into winter; and those which are winter or early-spring flowering specialists.

I totted up 31 species on the regular transect of the New Year Plant Hunt, which is just under 20% of the total number of species I recorded across the year. What is missing from the transect in January is a host of spring flowers which will not appear for another month or two (such as violets, naturalised spring bulbs and woodland species such as ramsons); the vast majority of the trees and grasses; and the dominant summer species which flowered between May and July (such as hedge parsley, meadowsweet and black knapweed). Also missing are some of the autumn specialists with shorter flowering seasons (including ivy, Russian vine and Michaelmas daisy).

I do however hope to continue the transects through 2018 and build a more robust dataset over time as I think the context it adds to the new year plant hunt is quite an interesting one!

Find out more about the BSBI’s 2018 New Year Plant Hunt results on their website here!

2017 Retrospective – The Rest!

I like to take the opportunity which the end of the year presents to look back over what I’ve seen and encountered. Some fall nicely into groups so do check out trees, wildflowers, butterflies, bees and invertebrates on their own posts!

The remainder are individual species or places which don’t form a group, but which are an important part of the year just passed. I hope you enjoy!

Easegill Bat Surveys

I was lucky to be invited along to a hibernation check in the caves in Easegill, Cumbria by a friend in the bat group there. We found a number of hibernating myotis and brown long-eared bats in the various cave systems, along with the tissue moths, herald moths and cave spiders which use the same habitats over winter. It was a great day out in some stunning scenery, and the opportunity to do a spot of caving whilst searching for wildlife was a real treat! You can read more, and watch a short compilation video, on this post from January 2017.

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Snowy walk along Stanage Edge

It takes around an hour and a half for us to get to some of the most stunning walks in the Peak District; a bit of a trek but always worth the visit especially if there’s snow to line the fields and de-mark the landscape with its series of hedges and stone walls. I love too how the hills in the far distance can give an illusion of mountains when they become snow-covered!

Smooth newt – Lissotriton vulgaris

I couldn’t resist this photograph when we were undertaking translocations at the beginning of the year. The legislative driver behind the translocation is the great crested newt, but we take the opportunity to move any species we encounter to a place of safety. With the juveniles, such as this little smooth newt, you need to keep a sharp eye to make sure you spot them all!

Common frog – Rana temporaria

Spring is one of the most rewarding times to have a garden pond – when the croaking begins and the surface is a mass of calling frogs. This was taken on a cool March day when the frogs had decided that spring had sprung! In this photo, I tried to capture the turbulence of the water which these amorous amphibians bring to a placid garden pond.

Slow worm – Anguis fragilis

We encountered this slow worm under a piece of corrugated metal in the woods near Woodhall Spa in the early summertime. There had been a rainshower which caught us out and the slow worms too had taken shelter. As the sun came out and the corrugated metal began to warm, the chances of catching one reduced significantly as they are anything but slow when they want to be! These reptiles are in fact legless lizards rather than snakes. Their habit of sheltering beneath these artificial refugia forms the basis of the reptile survey technique we use in ecological consultancy to find out whether reptiles are present on a particular site.

Dandelion seedhead before the full moon

The was taken at Muston Meadows at midnight when the moon was full and I couldn’t resist a walk. The dandelion seedheads glowed white against the dark grass but I was struggling to capture this in a photograph – then I thought this might make an interesting angle!

Dandelion head by the light of the moon

Shropshire Hills

We spent a few days over the May bank holiday in Ireland for a wedding, coming back via Anglesey and spending a night in Shropshire on our way back east. We walked over the Long Mynd at dusk, heading back towards our campsite, and this was the view as we began to descend.

Church of Saint Mary, Whitby

A weekend camping near Robin Hood’s Bay in the summer found us in Whitby before walking back along the coast. This is the taken at the Church of Saint Mary – set above the town and referenced in Dracula. I was struck with this view of the tombstones dark against the long meadow grasses and wished this was a more common sight – cemeteries and churchyards can be beautiful places full of life after death, if they’re managed sensitively for wildlife rather than manicured as bowling greens!

Curbar Edge, Derbyshire

We had a survey site which saw me out in the Peak District until 7pm one evening in August – after which I took the opportunity to see the heather and take a walk along Curbar Edge at sunset. This is the view out across from the Edge as the sun was sinking low on the horizon.

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Vancouver Island

The following are a few photographs from Vancouver Island this year – we encountered some spectacular wildlife and were amazed by the scenery. You can read more in my blog posts here, but below are a few highlights.

Anna’s Hummingbird in Victoria

American red squirrel at Long Beach, Tofino

Black squirrel in Stanley Park, Vancouver

Orca’s from Victoria

Grey heron reflection against the vending machines on the marina in Vancouver

Slow worm – Anguis fragilis

This tiny slow worm was one of this year’s juveniles – we were surveying a site in Somerset and this was one of seven young ones which appeared under a single survey mat where the sun warmed a bank at the edge of the site. When I picked it up, it wrapped itself around my finger but was so small that the nose and tail didn’t quite meet!

Sunrise on the day of Storm Ophelia

This photograph was taken of the countryside in Warwickshire on the day Storm Ophelia swept across the UK. At that time, I didn’t realise what was causing the effect but was just taken by the colours – it turned out that the day was to be filled with the pseudo-apocolyptic light brought on by the Sahara sands.

Cattle at Muston Meadows

Muston Meadows is an ancient haymeadow and a National Nature Reserve in Leicestershire. The site is managed with a late-summer hay cut and is grazed in the winter by cattle. I visited one frosty morning in December and they were delighted to have a visitor, charging over before stopping and checking me out. They then accompanied me all the way off the site so perhaps their role is security as well as site management!

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Icicles under Burbage Bridge

On a snowy cold day in December, I took a walk through the white from the Longshaw Estate in Derbyshire, through woodland and across tors and encountering these beautiful icicles hanging beneath the bridge which takes the road over Burbage Brook.

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Clematis seedhead – Clematis vitalba

These are also commonly known as old man’s beard and it’s easy to see why! I came across these seedheads in a hedgerow on a survey site in Bedfordshire where the wind had left them with this shape over time – I liked the feeling of motion which they held  even when still. It seemed appropriate for seeds which are waiting for their time to take to the wind and begin a new plant elsewhere in the landscape.

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Teasel seedheads – Dipsacus fullonum

On the same site as the clematis above, I also found an amazing stand of teasel seedheads. These striking plants are excellent for wildlife – in the summer they provide an abundance of nectar for pollinators such as bees and butterflies, and the winter seedheads will play host to flocks of goldfinches foraging for the seeds.

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2017 in Invertebrates

Bees and butterflies have had a blog post to themselves, but here are a few other invertebrate encounters from 2017 I thought I’d share on the penultimate day of the year!

Wood Ants

These were taken in Great Wood in the Quantock Hills. We spent a while being amazed at the ability of these tiny creatures to pull twigs and other materials into position around their nests, joining others to give assistance where required or simply tugging with amazing tenacity until they got where they were going. Soon we also noticed the guard ants, who were trying their hardest to intimidate us into backing away and leaving the nest in peace!

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Great Diving Beetle – Dytiscus marginalis

We came across this beast when doing great crested newt surveys in the springtime – the bottle traps used to catch and count the courting newts also work for other species such as this, one of our largest beetles. They can have quite a nip, so I’m told, so this one was handled with care before being returned to its pond in a pasture field.

Great diving beetle - Dytiscus marginalis

Sawfly in a buttercup

I came across this little sawfly – its head dusted with pollen – settled in a buttercup flower in Muston Meadows in early summer. It didn’t move as I got into position to take a photo, and I could only assume it had settled there for the night.

Sawfly settled into a buttercup flower to spend the night

Wasp – Gasteruption jaculator

This amazing looking creature was feeding on the fool’s water cress flowering at the edge of our garden pond. The amazing ovipositor is so much larger than the wasp itself which made it look for all the world like a radio-controlled insect as it flew between flowers!

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Wasp – Ectemnius sp.

I came across this little wasp feeding on the hogweed flowers on a walk through Cheddar Gorge and thought it deserved a portrait – the rounded head with the eyes wrapped around looks as though it could have been the inspiration for a number of sci-fi aliens!

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Ornate-tailed digger wasp – Cerceris rybyensis

I was walking through the Hills and Hollows above Grantham one afternoon and came across a series of holes in the bare earth – I watched a while and saw several heads peeking out before one of the insects arrived from outside and I could get a proper view. This is a species of digger wasp whose prey is bees such as this solitary bee held beneath its body. The wasps bring the bees back and pull them underground to provide food for their larvae.

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Darter dragonfly – Sympetrum sp.

This dew-bejewelled dragonfly was resting on a flower stem in Muston Meadows in August. Taken just after sunrise, this shows the roosting behaviour where the dragonflies will find a safe place to spend the night, waiting for the sun to warm them in the morning and get them up to temperature so that they can take to the wing once more.

Snail

This little snail was crawling across the roof of my car when I got back from a dawn bat survey in late summer. I’m not sure how it made its way all the way there, but I liked the reflection in the early morning sunshine. I popped it back into the vegetation in the verge before heading home!

Wolf spider (Lycosidae)

This photograph was taken in the Grantham Hills and Hollows in late summer as the grasses were beginning to turn from greens to browns. I had bent down low to get a photograph of one of the wildflowers, and then my eye was caught by how many invertebrates were active just in the grasses beside it.

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Grasshopper

This grasshopper was taken on the same afternoon as the wolf spider above – I’m afraid I haven’t attempted an ID on this little character but would welcome any suggestions! The camouflage of this grasshopper amongst the greens and browns of the aging summer grassland meant I only spotted it when it hopped to another location.

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Minotaur beetle – Typhaeus typhoeus

This amazing beetle was trundling across a forest path in the Quantocks in autumn. Despite the fearsome looking horns, they are not predatory but are in fact a species of dung beetle which feeds on rabbit droppings amongst others. They nest in deep tunnels and will pull the dung back down with their powerful legs in order to provision the larvae.

 

 

 

 

2017 in Butterflies

Like the bees in my last post – butterflies are summer’s companions. Whilst the bees add movement and sound, their gentle buzz providing the background to many a summer’s day, the butterflies are all about the flair and colour.

Below are a few of my favourite encounters as we moved through 2017.

Green hairstreak – Callophrys rubi

This is a species I have only ever seen briefly before, flitting in the low grasses as we walked The Ridgeway through Oxfordshire a few years ago. A hunt around Barnack Hills and Holes in May soon turned up a hawthorn shrub with several males standing guard over their patches of territory. This one was settled on an unopened flower bud, poised and ready to spring into the air as soon as another flew past and questioned his ownership of this space. You can read more about this encounter in this blog post!

Green hairstreak male guarding his patch - poised ready to chase an intruder!

Green-veined white – Pieris napi

With the exception of a couple of rarer species, it is easy to overlook our white butterflies as most people view them as pests in the garden. But like almost anything – they’re beautiful when viewed in their own right and on their own merits. My favourite part of this photograph is those chequered blue eyes as this butterfly feeds on forget-me-not flowers at Treswell Wood.

Small pearl-bordered fritillary – Boloria selene

We were walking through the dunes and forest at Newborough in Anglesey in May and spotted this static shape at the side of a path – a small pearl-bordered fritillary resting on the seedhead of a plantain. It’s rough brown textures gave it excellent camouflage. This species is widespread across the UK but only occurs in discreet colonies, commonly in the clearings in deciduous woodland but also marshland and moorland further north.

Ringlet – Aphantopus hyperantus

This is a common species of grassland and woodland habitats, but one which always delights me. The veins in the soft-brown wings are such good parodies of those found on the leaves it settles amongst, and the five eye spots are striking. This photo was taken at the Hills and Hollows behind Grantham, the butterfly sheltering amongst the grass on a windy afternoon.

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Marbled white – Melanargia galathea

This white is actually more closely related to the browns than the other whites, despite name and appearance. It is a species I usually associate with the counties of Warwickshire and Oxfordshire as these are where I have encountered them most often on walks and surveys, so it was lovely to find a healthy population down the road in Bedford Purleius. This was taken in the meadow close to the carpark, along with the silver-washed fritillary pictured below.

Burnet moth – Zygaena sp.

Technically not a butterfly but a dayflying moth, I felt I had to include this photograph. This was taken at Lolly Moor – a Norfolk Wildlife Trust reserve – when I called by this year. The marsh helleborines were my main aim but there were many other orchids and these burnet moths were bouncing between them. This is one of the five-spot burnet moths, but I am unsure whether the ‘regular’ or the narrow-bordered. Any tips welcomed!

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Small copper – Lycaena phlaeas

Some years I see this delicate little butterfly everywhere but others it is a real treat to encounter. Sadly 2017 was the latter – the only time I came across this species was whilst walking on a path above the Thames in Oxfordshire. The set-aside margins in the fields were particularly species-rich, drawn from the local wildflower meadows, and this was one of several species of butterfly enjoying the flowers on the day we were there.

Silver-washed fritillary – Argynnis paphia

This was a rather ragged specimen but its grace and presence was un-diminished – they stood out a mile flying alongside the marbled whites in the meadow at Bedford Purleius. This is our largest fritillary species in the UK and gets its name from the streaks of silver on the underside of the wings.

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Wall brown – Lasiommata megera

A walk from Cheddar up the gorge to the quarry at the top rewarded me with this butterfly. The wall used to be much more common across the UK but suffered severe declines and now has a much smaller distribution. This is certainly the first time in a number of years I have come across this butterfly.

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Common blue – Polyommatus icarus

Taken at sunrise in Muston Meadows, this common blue had spent the night roosting on the seedhead of a black knapweed and was waiting for the morning rays to warm it before taking to the wing. These little blue butterflies are abundant within the grasses, feeding particularly on the bird’s foot trefoils and other meadow wildflowers.

Red admiral – Vanessa atalanta

The last butterflies I saw in 2017 were those set to see out the winter in their adult form – the red admirals, small tortoiseshells and peacocks. Ivy flowers provide an abundant source of nectar for these late-flying species and they joined the bees and hoverflies on the flowers beside Grantham Cemetery.

2017 in Wildflowers

Common Whitlow Grass – Erophila verna

This little wildflower is everywhere in the springtime – at only a few centimetres high it is easily overlooked but it is forever offering up tiny bunches of flowers to those who would take note. I especially liked the setting of this photograph – on a grubby pavement in Grantham next to cigarette butts and other litter you find this little thing of beauty just waiting to be noticed.

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Oxlip – Primula elatior

I made a pilgrimage to Hayley Wood in Cambridgeshire this year to see these wildflowers. A relative of the more abundant cowslip, these are an ancient woodland species with a curiously restricted distribution, now found growing wild only in that part of the country where Essex, Cambridge and Suffolk meet.

Oxlip (Primula elatior) in Hayley Wood, Cambridgeshire

Green-winged Orchid – Anacamptis morio

I am lucky now to live just a few miles from Muston Meadows meaning there are ample opportunities to visit this ancient haymeadow – designated a National Nature Reserve. This is one of the green-winged orchids for which the meadow is so famous, set against the grassland in the sunset light in early summer.

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Greater Stitchwort – Stellaria graminea

Treswell Wood in Nottinghamshire is a beautiful place to spend some time exploring, especially when the sun is setting. Amongst the spring flowers, these greater stitchworts are one of my favourite woodland species with their bold white petals and delicate green framework.

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Bee orchid – Ophrys apifera

The return of these flowers each year seems like the return of a smile – their colourful, beaming faces always mean summer is here. This photo was taken among the dunes in Anglesey at the end of May, where these orchids arose from the sands along with the round-leaved wintergreens and dune pansies.

Man Orchid (Orchis anthropophora) and Pasque Flower (Pulsatilla vulgaris)

Barnack Hills and Holes is situated just a mile or two off the A1 – it was formed by quarrying limestone in medieval times and now it is home to a stunning array of flora. At the right time of year, can reward you with two national rarities in a single shot!

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Fly Orchid (Ophrys insectifera)

A visit to Bedford Purleius to see these delicate little fly orchids has become something of an annual tradition for me now. They are so hard to spot at first, but once you get your eye in on the first flower, more and more appear amongst the grasses of the meadow.

Lady’s slipper orchid (Cypripedium calceolus)

This photograph was taken overseas – in the Dolomites – but this is the one flower I was hoping to see most and the one which was most elusive. We spotted a single one, just as my dad was asking ‘what do they look like?’, I said ‘like… that!’ and there it was, nestled amongst the greenery beside us on the path.

Lady's slipper orchid (Cypripedium calceolus) in the Dolomites

Broad-leaved helleborine (Epipactis helleborine)

I watched the plants of the broad-leaved helleborine grow beneath the beeches at Bedford Purleius for several months before arriving one day to find them finally in flower. A new species for me, these orchids are subtle but beautiful, blending with the greenery of the canopy leaves above them.

Great Willowherb (Epilobium hirsutum)

This is a late-summer wildflower blooms in the meadows above Grantham and adds a beautiful swath of colour to the browning grasses around it.

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Black knapweed (Centaurea nigra)

A late-summer return to Muston Meadows saw the black knapweed in full flower amongst the late-summer grasses. The orchids of springtime are almost alone in the meadow, along with cowslips and cuckoo flower, but summer sees a riot of colour and contrast as different species vie for space and light.

Knapweed at sunset at Muston Meadows

Heather

An August walk along Cheddar Gorge as the mist was lifting, leaving droplets on the grasses and flowers. The colours behind the flower are provided by the bracken beginning to brown with the grass still fresh and green.

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Harebell (Campanula rotundifolia)

The soft sky-blue of the harebell set with the thin wiry framework of the stems is one of my favourite flowers to photograph – since finding a colony in the meadow above Grantham, I have watched the flowers persist through the summer and into autumn whilst the colours of the vegetation change behind them.

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Heather

The heather which covers much of the Peak district in late-summer is a spectacular sight – especially at sunset when the light softens and glows golden. Along with the bluebells of spring, I think heather would be a worthy focus for the Japanese concept of hanami – flower viewing – as a national pastime here in the UK!

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Dove’s foot cranesbill – Geranium molle

I was out surveying on the day Storm Ophelia passed over the country and cast the countryside in that strange apocolyptic light. This was one of a number of flower portraits I took that day – I especially liked the contrast of the fresh pink  with the fallen poplar leaves.

2017 in Bees

If trees are the elders of the countryside, then the bees are part of the summer pageantry of a fairground, here in numbers for just six months of the year they work hard and play hard, getting drunk on nectar whilst setting themselves up for the long winter ahead.

I love to look back on photos from the year and see the changes in light and colour as well as species – hopefully this will come across in the retrospective below:

Honey bee – Apies mellifera

The first bees of the year for me, appeared on valentines day a whole month before I saw the next. These were the honey bees on the gorse flowers, just a stones throw from the edge of the residential in Grantham. I would expect these were from a hive somewhere in a garden nearby. The footpath here winds through the gorse shrubs, creating a sheltered microclimate filled with the coconut-scent of the flowers making an ideal first-forage of the season!

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Early Mining Bee – Andrena haemmorhora (male)

This beautiful little bee is the first mining bee I saw in 2017. This was taken at Farndon Willow Holt – a Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust reserve which is best known for its collection of willows but with many other habitats besides. This little male mining bee was on a blackthorn flower against the blue spring sky in March.

Early bumblebee – Bombus pratorum

This is the aptly named ‘early’ bumblebee – visiting winter-flowering honeysuckle in my parents’ garden back in March. Ornamental and garden plants such as this can really extend the range of nectar sources available for early-flying bumbleebee queens in the springtime.

Ashy mining bee – Andrena cineraria

This little bee appeared on the inside of our new greenhouse as we were assembling it over easter. The structure was only half-glazed at this point and upon flying in, it must have flown upwards and become trapped in the glass roof. After a few photos, I sent it on its way! These grey and black mining bees are very striking, and often the first ‘unusual’ bees which people notice in their gardens before discovering the world of different bees which their flowers support.

Early Mining Bee – Andrena haemmorhoa (female)

This was one of the first mining bees I ever took real notice of – it was searching for its hole next to me in the garden and I was struck my the beautiful patterning of the fur. This shot was taken in a spot I came to think of as ‘bee alley’ – just around the corner from work it has a good patch of green alkanet – an early flowering member of the forget-me-not family – and the aspect catches the sun at lunchtime resulting in a new species pretty much every day I visited! Read more about the bees I saw there on this page.

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Bumblebees along The Drift

The Drift is an ancient track which runs along the Lincolnshire/Leicestershire county boundary near us. The limestone grassland is filled with wildflowers but the key species for bumblebees is always the viper’s bugloss – it produces nectar-rich flowers which are accessible to a range of the ‘generalist’ bumblebees and will keep on producing more week after week. If you want to boost the bee-value of your garden – this would be my top tip!

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Tree Bumblebees (Bombus hypnorum) Mating

The house next door to us had a tree bumblebee nest this year and one day, the garden was filled with the tandem flights of newly emerged queens and sharp-eyed males who had latched on to mate with them. It was amazing to watch the queens successfully take off with such an extra weight on their backs! You can see in this photograph how much smaller the male bumblebees are compared with the queens.

Tree Bumblebee (Bombus hypnorum) Nest

This was a photo of a tree bumblebee arriving into its nest in a fallen willow. The nest was in a failed hazard beam meaning the cavity opened on both sides with the nest situated in the cavity above. By positioning myself on the opposite side, I managed to get this shot of a worker approaching and about to enter the nest.

Tree bumblebee entering its willow-cavity nest

Black Ruderal Bumblebee – Bombus ruderatus

This was another photograph taken along The Drift – this time of a bumblebee which had spent the night on a knapweed flower and had not yet warmed and woken up. This was one of several individuals which were all black – a melanic version of the ruderal bumblebee which is typically banded. This species of bumblebee is thought to be on the increase – possible reasons could include climate change or the increased planting of red clover.

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Leafcutter Bee (Megachile versicolor)

I had made a bee hotel way back in April and this was my favourite resident – a leafcutter bee (probably brown-footed leafcutter) which would spend its days bringing sections of leaf back to seal up egg cells within its nest tubes.

Orange-vented leafcutter bee building its nest with rose leaf segments in our home-made Bee Hotel

Male Bumblebee (species… forgotten!)

This photo was taken after a summer rain shower – this male bumblebee had been caught out on the verbena in the garden and was waiting to dry out. You can see the characteristic ‘yellow moustache’ which typically is found on the males of the commoner species including Bombus lucorum, B. lapidarius, B. pascuorum, B. jonellus and B. praetorum

Carder Bumblebee (Bombus pascuorum) on Carline Thistle

I liked the colour scheme of this shot – the carline thistle (in full flower despite the appearances!) and the carder bumblebee share the same straw-coloured brown which seemed characteristic of the countryside in late summer. This photograph was taken at Harbury Spoil Banks – a Warwickshire Wildlife Trust reserve.

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Solitary Bee on creeping thistle

I’m afraid my ID skills aren’t up to this one, but this is one of the small solitary species resting in August. I like the way the thistle flower looks similar to an anemone, reminding me of the clown fish and sea anemone relationship. This little bee was actually blowing bubbles into the wind when I found it – a behaviour thought to be useful in reducing the water content of the nectar and increasing its concentration.

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Heath bumblebee – Bombus jonellus

This was a male heath bumblebee on the heather at Curbar Edge taken just before sunset. This was one of the last bees I saw in 2017, and the first time I have seen this species which is common in heathland areas but can also be found in parks and gardens near to the habitats. I liked the way this one posed at the top of the strand – actually he was trying to be lazy and reach the next flower without taking to the wing!

2017 in Trees

The darkness of the winter is always a good time to reflect on a year passed, not only to appreciate what you’ve seen and experienced but to look forward to the treasures which await the eager explorer in the year ahead.

As always,  I find trees feature strongly when I look back at the photos I’ve taken. There is much to appreciate in the natural world and each element has its own pleasure and essence. Trees feel like communing with the elders (no pun intended!) – even a stand of spindly silver birch will have been alive almost as long as I have and some of the trees you meet allow you to reach back through the generations, to the limits of living memory and far beyond. Here are a just a few such encounters from this year.

Clumber Park

Clumber has much to offer at any time of year – the double lime avenue on the entrance just keeps rolling the trees before you like an unfurling scroll as you drive in, and the old parkland has many veterans to tell you their tales. This photo was taken across the lake, as the sun sunk low on a Sunday afternoon in January, lighting the trunks and stretching the reflections out across the water.

Grantham

This tree sits proudly on top of the hillside overlooking Grantham and I pass it most days on my lunchtime walk. It is a sycamore and sits at the end of an incongruous line of old oaks, beeches and other sycamores which speak of an older time. A friend refereed to it as ‘that amazing oak’, assuming the species from its stature and prowess. I wonder if she’ll read this… Stretching out below is the course grassland and gorse of Harrowby Hill and above it lies the Hills and Hollows where barn owls and short-eared owls hunt through the winter months and marsh orchids nestle in the summertime.

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Hatfield Forest

We went with some friends to listen to Sam Lee’s ‘Singing with Nightingales‘ at Fingringhoe Wick in spring, and took the opportunity for a walk around Hatfield Forest. Hornbeam was growing in the woodlands with a frequency and regularity I never see here in the Midlands, but this particular specimen was exceptional. This is an old hornbeam pollard where the heartwood had rotted away and the tree split into two live, healthy halves which were easily large enough to walk through.

Treswell Wood

Treswell Wood is a very special place – Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust’s first reserve, it is an ash dominated ancient woodland in the north of the county which now plays host to the successfully reintroduced dormouse populations as well as supporting a whole range of other species. Springtime sees the trees burst into an abundance of fresh green leaves and creamy white blossom and this photograph of the mixed canopy captures this exuberance for me.

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Muston Meadows

Muston Meadows is an ancient haymeadow in Leicestershire – it’s deep ridge and furrow grassland supports an exceptional population of green-winged orchid as well as a burnet, pignut, cowslip, quaking oat grass and meadowsweet. This photograph of the oak and ash within the boundary hedgerow was taken as a starlapse at midnight under moonlight in the springtime. I love to be somewhere that allows you to feel such a strong connection to the past, I imagine scenes from D. H. Lawrence’s works where the haymaking in these meadows was a time of great importance for sustenance and survival, as well as opportunities for intrigue and romance.

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Bedford Purleius

The light filtered through a thousand leaves has subtleties of which vary from species to species, from place to place and from month to month. There can be few however to match the soft light of sunshine through newly unfurled beech leaves, as this stand in Bedford Purleius. Later in the season, the ground beneath these trunks will support helleborines which flower in mid-summer.

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Millstone Edge, Derbyshire

Leaving the twisted, gnarled oak woodland of the valley beside the Burbage Brook, you turn onto an entirely different scene – one of light and green and air. This edge is populated almost entirely by silver birch with sketch a monchrome array between the greens of foliage above and grassland below.

Robin Hood’s Bay

This was an opportunistic photograph of the sunlight playing through woodsmoke from a bonfire in the clearing below. It’s not often that mist and fog will persist long enough through the day to allow such vertical shafts of light in a woodland scene, so I took advantage of serendipity to catch a shot which reminds me more of rainforest than an English woodland.

Quantocks

The Quantocks has become one of my favourite places to visit – the different characters of the trees and woodland set within an ancient landscape are irresistible. You can read more in this blog post from the autumn, but below are a couple of my favourites.

First is the gnarled oak woodland crowding the road which ventures up over the wooded hillside from Nether Stowey towards Crowcombe.

Next is the massed boughs of the coppiced beeches which line the Drove Road – a prehistoric track which runs across the ridge of the hillside above Crowcombe.

This photograph is perhaps my favourite of this year – it shows the woodland closing over the road with Tolkinesque grandeaur. If these were ents which came to life, I wouldn’t be so very surprised…

Cambridge Botanic Garden

This shows the beautiful soft browns of the autumn needles of swamp cypress – an evergreen conifer – against the backdrop of yellow maple leaves. I was in Cambridge for a meeting and had an hour before catching my train which gave a perfect opportunity to explore the botanic gardens which were conveniently close to the station. As well as the stunning floral displays and specimens, they have some beautiful trees and it’s a great spot for autumn colour!

Wappenbury Wood

Small-leaved lime used to be the key component of the woodlands around the midlands, before the clearance of the wildwood and the generation of the stands we see today. They still occur if you know where to look – Steve Falk‘s guides can help if you’re lucky enough to be in Warwickshire – and these old coppice stools within Wappenbury Wood are a fine example of a tree with which we should all be more familiar. Coppicing was the ancient practice of cutting the tree down to a bole, from which new growth would appear and could be substantially harvested without ever killing the tree. On the contrary, some of the oldest trees you can find are coppices and pollards, including small-leaved lime coppices in Westonbirt Arboretum thought to be over 2000 years old. This photo shows the tall, straight trunks of the regrowth many years after their last cut.

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Bottesford Church

This photograph was taken at a local churchyard one frosty morning on Novembe. The night had turned the grass and gravestones to white whilst the sunrise caught the embers of autumn leaves on this beech and ignited them into a celebration of orange, umber and yellow. It was only a few more days before the leaves fell, but this was a moment when autumn had not yet given way to winter and the right morning can provide you with the best of both.

Staverton Park

I was very pleased to find myself within a few miles of this woodland in November, and took the opportunity to explore one of the most impressive assemblages of ancient trees in the country. You can read more in my blog post, but here area couple of my favourites.

The path through The Thicks wound its way between trees and shrubs, but split around this majestic old oak which stood in the centre of the path and demanded all that pass must pass around it.

This photograph was taken at sunrise, of one of the idiosyncratic old oaks on the edge of the parkland. The ground layer beneath is dominated by bracken, and I thought the frond and the tree made a nice contrast against the morning sky.

Whatton-in-the-Vale

Grantham Road is a bypass to the old road, which was subsequently bypassed again by the new A52 which avoids the village altogether. The road now links the two parts of the village and, though less than 100 years old, is bestowed an authority and antiquity by the double-line of planes which enclose it. The houses at the end are where the Griffin’s Head pub once stood. I liked the way the glow of life and civilisation lay at the end of the imposing avenue against a starry sky, like coming out of the woods into the safety of a home.

Millstone Edge

Back once more amongst the silver birches of Millstone Edge – their black and white stems through the snow transports you to another country, to Russia or else eastern Europe.

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Bedford Purleius

With the seedheads of the helleborines still standing, this was the last view I had of these beech trees in 2017. I love the softness of the light which seems to remain as a memory of those leaves from early springtime.

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The Wildflower Year around Grantham

At the beginning of 2017, I took part in the annual New Year Plant Hunt – organised by the BSBI, this is an annual event inviting everybody from beginners through to pro’s to walk a route and see how many species they can find in flower. You can read about the results of my Grantham survey from 2017 in this blog post.

I was curious to see how the number of species, as well as the composition, changed through the year. Rather than having a snapshot of what was flowering on the 1st January alone, I’d like to know how long it had been flowering, and how long it would go on. The route I chose to explore further is a portion of the full route I took for the New Year, and is entirely within Grantham town, taking in a walk along the river, through the town centre, out around the train station and across parks and carparks.

I completed the last monthly survey on the 4th December, totalling 12 months of records, and here are the initial results!

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In total I recorded 164 species in flower with a peak of 78 different species in June. So far, my first survey (on the relevant portion of the wider transect) in January was the lowest count, with just 24 species. My final walk in December was still turning up 40 different species – some of which were looking much worse for wear after the first frosts.

Coupled with the species accumulation curve – shown in green in the graph above – this pattern supports the idea that most of the flowers you find in the New Year Plant Hunt are likely to be hangers-on from the previous season, or species which flower happily in all seasons such as daisies and dandelions. In January, there are a few new appearances such as winter heliotrope and early snowdrops, but the vast majority have been persisting into the winter rather than appearing during it. There are marked increases in the records of new species, which reach a peak in May/June but this tails to nothing by November and December.

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It’s also interesting to see how many species I only picked up in just one or two months. The graph above shows how many species were recorded in 1, 2, 3… up to 12 months. A small handful were recorded throughout, but nearly a third of species were recorded in only a single month.

Below is a quick run through some of the groups of species and trends I recorded throughout the year:

The Constants

These are the species which were recorded every month, give or take the odd one which was usually due to somebody ‘tidying away’ a patch rather than reflecting a lack of flowering! One quite noticable trait from walking the same patch over and over was the reduction in management through the coldest months – I assume that people don’t think of weeds as a problem in the winter, and so I was happily watching opportunists thrive beside pavements and at carpark edges through January to March, until the weather warmed up and they were suddenly noticed and obliterated! Species pictured below are red deadnettle, annual meadowgrass, daisy, petty spurge and yarrow.

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The Early Birds

A number of species appeared first in the early spring and quickly disappeared again. Winter heliotrope was the earliest ‘new’ flowerer, followed by the spring bulbs such as snowdrop, crocus and hybrid bluebell (all naturalised) along with primroses, violets and lesser celandine. Pictured below are lesser celandine, lords and ladies, and common whitlow grass.

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The Trees

Alongside the Early Birds, or close behind them, were the trees and shrubs scattered through the town. These included some of the earliest new arrivals of the year, such as hazel which appeared in February, through to the later flowering species such as lime which put in its first appearance in June. In between came willows, silver birch, whitebeam, poplar, beech, oak, ash, blackthorn, hawthorn, rowan and alder. Pictured below are hazel, elm and hawthorn.

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The Carpark Attendants

A few species were to be found only in carparks in the centre of town, and here they were fairly constant throughout the year. Interestingly, the species composition of some of these was predominantly non-native: gallant soldier, Guernsey fleabane, Canadian fleabane, snapdragon, red valarian and buddleia to name a few. These sprung up often in the tiniest scraps of soil and were rarely subdued by the occasional cleanup for long, rejuvinating within a month or so. Native species joining the mix here included ivy-leaved toadflax, ragwort, feverfew and hedgerow cranesbill. The latter is pictured below, along with gallant soldier and ragwort.

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The Summer Heralds

Species which appeared first in May or June, heralding the summer when the highest numbers of species were recorded. These included a range of the more common meadow species which had found a foothold somewhere within the bounds of the town – speedwells, creeping cinquefoil, black medic, goat’s beard and sorrel to name a few. In this list also should be included the grasses – meadow foxtail, cock’s foot, false oat grass and Yorkshire fog for example. Fern grass too was a surprise, flowering within the brickwork just outside the door of our office! Pictured below are a selection of the pinks – herb Robert, red campion and honesty. And poppy, for luck!

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The Late Arrivals

Later summer saw the appearance of some of the most exciting species, to me anyhow! Yellow toadflax and blue fleabane are common in the pavement edges near the train station; elsewhere ivy comes into flower amidst a hum of happy pollinators and naturalised species such as Russian vine – a relative of Japanese knotweed – brightened up the fences the colonise. Other examples include rosebay willowherb and autumn hawkbit. Pictured below are yellow toadflax, blue fleabane and rosebay willowherb.

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Get involved

If you’d like to get involved in the New Year Plant Hunt this year, check out the BSBI website for more info! It’s great fun to see what you can find, even in the dead of winter, and even more satisfying to watch the shift as the season progresses.

Staverton Thicks

I am currently reading Oliver Rackham’s ‘History of the Countryside’ – the seminal text on the landscape I’ve known all my life. I was lucky enough to hear Dr Rackham speak back in 2014, before his sad passing the following year, and the enthusiasm he brought to the conference is apparent in every page of this otherwise weighty tome. Whilst learning much about how the British landscape came to be, I am treating it as something of a tourist guide to compile a wishlist of exceptional and illustrative locations. One such is Staverton Park and I was pleasantly surprised to find that a Biodiversity Seminar I was attending was just a few miles away, providing the perfect excuse to see for myself! With a quote like this, how could one resist?

“Sometimes a park still has its original trees. The supreme example is Staverton Park (near Woodbridge, Suffolk), a famous and awesome place of Tolkienesque wonder and beauty. The mighty and bizarre shapes of oaks of unknown age rise out of a sea of tall bracken, or else are mysteriously surrounded by rings of yet mightier hollies.”

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One of the mighty old oak trees within Staverton Park.

Staverton is a place which seems to have a special effect on those who visit – from casual walkers to woodland ecologists, you can appreciate it on many levels. Rackham’s account of the site is one amongst many – Peterken wrote extensively on the history and vegetation of the woodland (you can read it for free on the FSC website here) and Nick Sibbett produced a quite extraordinary survey of the individual trees which make up this exceptional arboreal congregation for Natural England. Exploring the crossover between the ecological and the cultural – Sara Maitland includes it as one of the chapters in her Gossip from the Forest – an exploration of the connections between woodland and folklore. It has formed the focus of Guardian Country Diaries and there are some lovely blog posts from the likes of Frames of Reference, Crossways Farm and Down the Forest Path.

Whilst guided walks do occur from time to time, the park is in private ownership but a path meanders through The Thicks to the south and then edges the eastern periphery of the parkland.

From the Woodbridge Road, just before Butley, a footpath takes you into the woods. The finger sign points directly towards a mighty oak – just a flavour of things to come! A short path winds you through the bracken, and past a few more giants, and then you’re into The Thicks! This part of the park was fenced from the remainder in the early 19th century and was left fairly unmanaged. It’s modern name was first recorded some 60 years later in 1881 as the canopy closed to form the dense woodland you can see today.

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One of the might oaks which parts the path in The Thicks, Staverton Park

The path is vague, meandering and dissipating between mighty oaks – in places, they settle contentedly in the middle of the path causing the way to wend around it, whilst in others the oaks loom across your way, making you duck and divert.

But despite the imposing, watching presence of the oaks, this is really the realm of the holly which is the most abundant tree in The Thicks. One of these hollys is thought to be the tallest in Britain at a towering 22.5m high!

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One of the amazing tall holly trees within The Thicks, Staverton Park

Some grow from old coppice stools, sending an array of trunks skywards, whilst others grow twinned with older, larger oaks, the angle of their growth aiming for gaps in the canopy beyond their associates. The ground beneath the living trunks is littered with the bodies of their fallen – branches and boles lie as deadwood across the woodland floor,  providing abundant opportunities for invertebrates which has evolved to rely upon such deadwood which is increasingly hard to find in our modern woodlands.

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One of the holly trees arising from an old coppice stool in The Thicks, Staverton Park

Peterken presents evidence which indicates that the site might have been continuously wooded since the wildwood era. Whilst there is no woodland in the country which is not influenced by human management or exploitation, he argues that this might be closest to the primeval, natural condition than most other woods in lowland Britain. The effect of walking The Thicks is of wandering between ancient beings, but the deviations from natural condition are quickly apparent. The oaks are predominantly pollarded – a historic practise of cutting the trees above browsing height to allow a sustainable harvest of the new growth. This extends their life and facilitates the gnarled, huge boles but is far from a natural occurrence on the scale seen in The Thicks. The ground flora too is surprisingly poor, lacking many of the ancient woodland indicator species. This is presumably a result of the intervening parkland years when the trees were open grown and the land grazed or heath beneath. Then there is the composition of the stand – according to Rackham’s analysis, Suffolk is deep within the limewood province, where small-leaved lime would have been the dominant tree species before the wildwood was cleared. Whilst Peterken makes no assertion that this woodland is akin to the wildwood which was once to be found upon the same soil, it is worth considering how far even a woodland with such an ancient feeling as this is departed from the wildwood we once had.

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The dense holly enclosing the path through The Thicks, Staverton Park.

Walking out of the dark oppressive vegetation of The Thicks, the scene switches. Suddenly the oaks are free from the evergreen accompaniments of the holly and are strewn majestically across the parkland with only bracken beneath. Any one of these trees would make you stop and stare if you stumbled across them, but en masse they form an army, like walking through a coven of witches or a gathering of the ents.

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Walking out into the parkland at Staverton Park is like stumbling across a gathering of ancient beasts

Wandering down the sandy track which etches the line between ancient parkland and modern farmland, birch begins to join the scene, its youthful white bark serving to throw into relief the massive presence of the oaks they grow amongst.

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The mighty bole of an ancient pollarded oak with the fresh white trunks of the birch in the background.

Nick Sibbett’s immense survey numbered the living oaks at 2,899, and more standing dead trees besides!

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One of the standing dead oaks within Staverton Park

Some of the oaks in the park have a Diamater at Breast Height (DBH) of over 7m although many specimens are much smaller than this. The precise age of these oaks isn’t known – there was a myth that the trees were planted in the early 1500’s by the monks of Butley Abbey. Some are indeed over 400 years old but there are a wide range of different aged trees across the park.

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Another of the mighty idiosyncratic oaks within the Staverton Parkland.

My first visit was at dusk, and the second at dawn the next day as the sun rose to the east. My time amongst this ancient assemblage was short lived, but I hope to be back in spring or summer to spend more time in this magical place.

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One of the boundary oaks of Staverton Park at sunrise.

Beech Droves and Gnarled Oaks

I’ve developed a bit of a thing for the Quantock Hills… ever since visiting for the first time last year, I’ve taken every opportunity I can to explore this ancient landscape – usually this means a very early start on a survey in the south-west to factor in some free time when I get there!

One of my favourite places is the Drove Road which is a prehistoric track running across the higher ground, presumed to be an ancient trading route which avoided the wetter lowlands. At one end is the Triscombe Stone accompanied by an information board which has the following to say:

‘[the drove road] is also on a ‘Harepath’ (a Saxon army route) recorded in the 14th century as the “Alferode”. In the year 878 King Alfred may have been familiar with the route during his stay nearby at Athelny, on the Somerset Levels.’

The track is lined with ancient beeches which have been coppiced – their boles much older than their branches – but they encompass the road as though the two have always been together, the arches echoing the holloway which runs beneath.

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If you continue beyond the Drove Road, leaving Crowcombe behind and taking a left along the winding lane towards Nether Stowey, you pass through stunning oak woodland. The gnarled contorted oaks are much older than you might guess from their dwarf stature – the exposed aspect and low nutrients of their habitat slows growth and the result is an eerie, exhilarating woodland – made all the more spectacular by the mist which eddied through the trunks on my last visit.

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This is an ancient landscape, one which is far from intact yet which retains remnants and features which have been lost in much of our modern countryside. The sessile oaks which twist and spiral were coppied for centuries for use for charcoal and in tanning leather. This practise of cutting to the base stimulated fresh growth and allowed the trees to be sustainably harvested by generation after generation – a far cry from the clearfell destruction which you can see at work in the Forestry Commission plantations which have appropriated parts of the nearby Great Wood.

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The ongoing ecological value of these woodlands is incredible – I know from experience that the trees beside the road are packed with bats – and the continuity and history make it culturally important. But you need know little of either to be awed by the impression of entering these spaces. The photograph below is perhaps my favorite – it taps into something primeval which is captured in some of the best literature and still to be appreciated in light and bark and leaf. This is the kind of lane which brings to mind Tolkien’s words:

“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”

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