Each winter for the last few years, there have been starling murmurations over Grantham and this year is no exception! I saw them gathering on a pylon in the fields beside Harlaxton as I drove along the A607 in this evening, and as I drove past they all rose en mass and began to flock over the western tip of Grantham. I parked up for a few moments to watch this incredible spectacle of aerial gymnastics.
There are several theories as to why starlings flock together like this and treat us to such a display. They gather just before roosting, which they do communally, and so you see smaller flocks gradually join the largest flock so that the numbers grow and grow before they drop down to the trees and shrubs where they spend the night communally. This grouping together may allow them to exchange information on good feeding spots, or just help them to gather with the rest of the local starlings to maximise the warmth which multiple bodies brings on cold winter nights.
The birds move in unison, twisting and turning in shapes a little like those you’d see in a lava lamp, and this behaviour increases in speed and complexity if there is a predator about. This is believed to be another of the reasons for the murmuration behaviour. Safety in numbers is an instinctive behaviour for many species – including birds, fish and mammals – and it works on the basis that if you are in a large crowd, there are many targets beside yourself which makes it unlikely that a predator will get you individually. The dynamic flight patterns of the murmuration adds a further element of safety by confusing the predator as the flock bends, twists and turns as one.
The flocks will begin to disperse as starlings pair up and establish nests, so take the opportunity to watch this natural phenomena whilst you have the chance! The hour before sunset is the best time to get out and look for them, and they are currently focused on the western tip of Grantham, sometimes moving over the centre earlier in the evening.
If you’re looking to commision ornithological surveys such as wintering bird surveys in the midlands, check out Landscape Science Consultancy’s website here.
I stopped off at Harlaxton Wharf on a cycle along the canal and got somewhat waylaid identifying the flowers there – for a very small square of land, you will find many species of wildflower! These include many species planted intentionally, using Naturescape seeds and the assistance of the Princes Trust when the Wharf was restored. Others, including some of the more understated species but also some of the most impressive, are centuries-old inhabitants of the Grantham Canal bankside. I have run through a whirlwind description to help you identify the species which are there – I may have missed some so please let me know if you spot anything else whilst waiting for a Canal Boat ride from the Grantham Canal Society – more info about the trips which leave from the Wharf can be found here and details of the renovation works are here. There is also a gallery of photographs of the wildflowers, arranged by colour, to help you with identification.
If you are visiting before July then the big flashy purple flowers from tall grey/green plumes of vegetation are corncockle (Agrostemma githago). Large herbaceous plants with purple flowers after this stage are the more likely to be the later flowering rosebay willowherb (Epilobium angustifolium), the plants of which can grow to 2m tall with their purple flowered trumpets topping a tower of lanceolate leaves. If the last description sounds right, bar the size, then the more diminutive broad-leaved willowherb (Epilobium montanum) might be your species – this grows no more than 50cm in height and is altogether more delicate than the big bruiser which is rosebay. The fluted flowers often shade from white to pink as they mature.
Greater knapweed (Centaurea scabiosa) is also growing here – the flowers are almost thistle-like but are plumed with tendrils at the petal tips. The colour is blue with a tinge of purple and the leaves are unlike thistles completely – robust fleshy and smooth green leaves with none of the spikes associated with thistles.
The large familiar yellow flowers growing from a rosette of toothed leaves (dandelion coming from the French: Dents de Lion) are your common or garden dandelion (Taraxacum officinale agg.). Watch out too for smaller, finer flowered versions – these are autumn hawkbit (Leontodon autumnalis) and they are not in flower until later in the year, as the name suggests.
Common nettle (Urtica dioica) should be known to most – if it stings you then you have your identification. The flowers on this are non-descript to say the least, fine tassles of tiny flowers in a sting-bead. If your ‘nettle’ has flowers then check the colour. There are a number of non-stinging ‘dead’ nettles and two of these are found at the Wharf. Luckily, their colour gives them away – white dead-nettle (Lamium album) is white whilst red dead nettle (Lamium purpureum) is red. There are other differences to tell the apart – the key characteristic is size and stature – if your deadnettle is approaching the structure of a stinging nettle then it is most probably white. Red is much less sturdy, often lower to the ground with finer leaves. There is a third option for a species with nettle-like leaves but no sting and this is hedge woundwort (Stachys sylvatica) – this has spikes of purple flowers which look almost orchid like. The best test here is scent- if there is a powerful unpleasant scent from the crushed leaf (certainly not like anything else I have ever smelt) then this is your species!
Taller flowers of red or white on long flower stalks with soft ovoid leaves are the red campion (Silene dioica) and the white campion (Silene latifolia). Again, there are other campions to choose from – the bladder campion can be seen out in the limestone swards of The Drift or the Viking Way – but only these two species are on the Wharf. Colour is key to ID!
Rounded, softly serrated leaves and a noticeably squared stem identify common figwort (Scrophularia nodosa). The flowers are deep red but tiny – at first glance you might think them buds waiting to burst into an exciting rich flower but closer inspection reveals them to be at the height of their glory.
Buttercups come in different shapes and sizes and two can be found here beside the canal – creeping buttercup (Ranunculus repens) is a very common species which is often found in damper places – a wet flush in a pasture field will often be stained yellow with the flowers. Other species are also common and a second can be found here – bulbous buttercup (Ranunculus bulbosus) differs in the leaf and structure but the key ID is in the flowers – the sepals (these are the green beneath the flower) are reflexed, that is they are peeled back like a banana and pressed against the stem below. Earlier in the year, you will see buttercup-like flowers but these could well be lesser celandine (Ranunculus ficaria). The flower petals of this species are more pointed than the very rounded petals of the buttercups and the leaves are round and shiny rather than serrated and dissected like those of the buttercups. For similarity of name rather than similarity of plant, I will also mention the greater celandine (Chelidonium majus). This is no relation to the lesser celandine but shares a name nonetheless. Greater celandine is in the cabbage family and is a much larger, more foliose plant. You get a lot of leaf for your flower!
Spiky plants next: there are three purple-flowered thistle species to be seen. The biggest, boldest thistle with spikes which look as though they have the ability to impale are the spear thistle (Cirsium vulgare) – think of the spikes as spears for an easy way to remember. There are too smaller species which look as though they could just give you a nasty prickling – here the key difference to tell them apart is the presence of spiky leaflets on the main stems – welted thistle (Carduus crispus) has them whilst creeping thistle (Cirsium arvensis) does not. To confuse matters ever so slightly further, there is another similar species you will see which is in fact a sowthistle rather than a thistle – the thistles all have purple flowers whereas the sow thistle has yellow flowers. The prickly sow thistle (Sonchus asper) has spikey leaves which wrap around their stem. A smooth version of this called, appropriately enough, a smooth sow thistle (Sonchus oleraceus) grows alongside it.
Of very different structure, but on the theme of spikes, are the white-flowered bramble (Rubus fruticosus agg.) which rambles along the ground and up through adjacent shrubs and trees. It should be familiar to anybody who has been blackberry-ing. Also instantly recognisable is the rose which grows wild here – the curved thorns and open white-pink flowers should be immediately recognisable to genus. This species is the dog rose (Rosa canina).
The tall, white-flowered umbellifers are another distinctive group – their flowers are in umbels which can be thought of as umbrellas for an easy visual clue. The leaves vary but are generally divided to a greater or lesser extent – lots of ‘empty space’ within the leaf footprint if you will. If the leaves are big and bold, divided into big lobes then you have hogweed (Heracleum sphondylium). Then there is the notorious ground elder (Aegopodium podagraria) – if you have it in your garden then you can pick it out of a line-up. The leaves appear directly from the ground very much like the leaves of the elder after which it is named. This will also send up dense heads of white flowers in a compact cluster. If it is neither of these, then next check is the stem – if there are purple dots of blotches then you have the highly toxic hemlock (Conium maculatum) – back away slowly and for goodness sake do not touch or eat. This leaves two other umbellifers which flower at the wharf and the simplest way to differentiate is to ask what time of year it is. Cow parsley (Anthriscus sylvestris) is a big, brash species which flowers early in the spring and is generally going over by the end of May. This is superseded by the smaller, finer, more delicate hedge parsley (Torilis japonica) which flowers for the remainder of the summer.
Two primrose species are to be found – a line of wild primrose (Primula vulgaris) grow along the bank with their pale yellow, individual flowers which are open and relatively large with wavy, indefinite edges. By contrast the cowslip (Primula veris) has groups of tighter, more enclosed flowers which hang together – a brighter yellow in colour with flecks of orange.
Ivy (Hedera helix) should need no introduction – a creeping plant with glossy green heart-shaped leaves. The flowers in the autumn are a great nectar source – clusters of small black sphered which look something like a tiny bunch of black grapes.
Some of the largest leaves on the Wharf belong to burdock (Arctium lappa) – these are greyish green above and whitish green below. The burdock flowers are fairly insipid but the seeds are a ball of hooks which fall apart to individual hooked seeds when you try to pick them apart when snagged on hair or clothes.
Another species which will stick to you if it has a chance is cleavers (Galium aparine). This has tiny four-petalled white flowers and grows in long strands, often creeping and climbing its way through other vegetation, with little whorls of leaves intermittently up its stem. There are a number of galium species in the UK but this is the most common and the only one which will stick to your jumper with ease!
There are a number of small plants with purple flowers and a more or less creeping characteristic – I will tell you about each in turn. Plants with little deep-purple trumpet-shaped flowers and ivy-shaped leaves – these will be the ground ivy (Glechoma hederacea). If the leaf description sounds right but the flowers do not, then perhaps the delicate trailing ivy-leaved toadflax (Cymbalaria muralis) is your species – these flowers have three lower petals and two upper with a yellow patch in the centre. If the purple flowers are star-shaped with fine green filigree foliage and red-wine stems then it is probably herb Robert (Geranium robertianum). Finally, if the plant has a more upright character with purple pea-like flowers and tendrils on the ends of the pinnate leaf stems, then this will be the common vetch (Vicia sativa).
A species which stands apart from the others is Lords and Ladies or Arum lily (Arum maculatum). The deep-green, often dark-flecked waxy leaves emerge straight from the ground in the early spring with the pale hooded flower rearing up soon afterwards with the long purple flower spike below. The action is all over by mid-May with the green berries appearing on a low spike, turning to red in the autumn.
Small yellow flowers on a substantial plant could be wood avens (Geum urbanum) – these leave a strange seed something like a strawberry after the flower has been fertilised and the flower lost. Nipplewort (Lapsana communis) is a taller species with a number of yellow flowers present in a very diffuse ‘head’. The flowers on the former have five distinct petals whilst the latter is a composite flower – it is a member of the daisy family – and has a larger number of yellow florets which somewhat crowd into one. If your plant is much lower to the ground, with red-flecked yellow pea-like flowers and clover-like leaves, then it will be bird’s foot trefoil (Lotus corniculatus). A final yellow-flowered possibility is the low, fleshy groundsel (Senecio vulgaris) whose flowers look perpetually as though they are just about to emerge – a bud waiting to burst. It never will – the flower rivals figwort for the disappointment following from bud to flower.
Clover-like flowers and clover-like (three-leafed) leaves growing close to the ground or sometimes bubbling and swelling into a mound is the white clover (Trifolium repens). This is a creeping plant and will rarely be found with individual flowers and leaves. A discreet, compact little plant with a flower spike of tiny white flowers to only 10cm high and leaves like lines of diminishing green coins laid out along the stem will be wavy bitter-cress (Cardamine flexuosa). A creeping, clambering plant with as much green sepal as white petal on the flower will be common chickweed (Stellaria media). A much more upright plant will be garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) – rub the leaves and release the faint smell to confirm the ID but be warned that this does not confer the taste to food it is used in cooking, unlike wild garlic which is found up in Belvoir Woods and out east at Belton House amongst others.
Multiple blue flowers with small, soft, green leaves like the ears of some small creature? Water forget-me-not (Myosotis scorpioides). And no, despite the name, this will be growing on the banks of the Wharf rather than in the canal itself.
Two poppy species are flowering here; the opium poppy (Papaver somniferum) has flowers which are an insipid but delicate shade of purple with grey-green foliage. The more familiar common poppy (Papaver rhoeas) can also be seen – these are the archetypal poppy with the deep red leaves and the black centre.
The old childhood adage said that where there are nettles to sting, there is dock to relieve. I never found this to be true but there are two species of dock to be seen. The big, bold, cumbersome species is broadleaf dock (Rumex obtusifolius). A smaller species with long, narrow pointed leaves and red veins is the wood dock (Rumex sanguineus).
Even amongst the gravel beside the water there are species which find a home. The tiny pearlwort (Sagina procumbens) holds tiny (really tiny) green pearl-like flowers aloft from fine-leaved foliage which ambles and spreads from the base. The whole plant is usually only a few centimetres in any direction. A bigger jumble of fennel-leaves with yellow and white flowers is the pineappleweed (Matricaria discoidea) – again a crush of
the leaves and a sniff should reveal the truth of the name.
I have left until last the most effusive and the most unimpressive flowers – I will deal with the latter first. The fat hen (Chenopodium album) flower is a mealy, beady insipid-red affair which you would struggle to even notice. The leaves always remind me a little of dinosaur footprints – this is a plant which will generally pass everybody by although it does make good eating! By contrast, the ox-eye daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare) – like the garden variety but blown up to gigantic proportions with crinkle-cut leaves and a big yellow centre is fairly unmistakable.
Cowslips are a common sight in April and May – brightening up grasslands and motorway verges with their swathes of nodding yellow flower heads. When I first started out in botany, I spent a good while convincing myself that the cowslips were indeed cowslips and not oxlips – Rose’s wildflower key tells you that cowslip is like oxlip but the ‘leaves are more wrinkled and the stem is more gradually tapered to the base’ which requires a certain amount of experience to compare! Luckily the sniff test (cowslip flowers smell like apricots) saw me right!
One simple rule of thumb is location – true oxlips are a rare ancient woodland species restricted to the part of the country where the counties of Cambridgeshire, Suffolk and Essex meet. Unless you are in a location like this, you are unlikely to be encountering oxlip. But to be on the safe side, here’s a few more pointers!
Cowslip – Primula veris
The flowers of cowslip, like those of oxlip, form a nodding head facing in a single direction. They can be long-stemmed – up to 25cm tall, but are often shorter where the nutrient levels are lower. The flowers are deep yellow with orange flecks in the centre.
You can find up to 30 flowers in a flower head, or sometimes just a few. Remember to take a sniff – the apricot aroma is quite distinctive in a fresh flower!
Oxlip – Primula elatior
Oxlip, as mentioned above, is a rare native found in ancient woodland in a restricted area of the country. If you are encountering the species on a roadside verge or in a meadow in Nottinghamshire, it’s probably not an oxlip. However the species can be bought as a plant, or grown from seed, so it is quite possible it can spring up in unexpected places if it escaped the confines of its sowing!
The oxlip is similar in structure and stature to the cowslip, in growing to ~25cm high and having 10-30 flowers on a head. As with the cowslip, all of the flowers will be nodding on the same side of the stem.
The oxlip flower is less bell-shaped than the cowslip, with more open spreading petals and a lighter, paler yellow. The centres of the flowers lack the orange spots usually found with cowslip.
False oxlip – Primula vulgaris x veris
Just to add to the confusion, there is another species which can be confused with both cowslip and oxlip and this is the false oxlip. The latin name is Primula vulgaris x veris reflecting the fact that a false oxlip is in fact a cross between a primrose and a cowslip, occuring where these two species are found in close proximity. If you find something which you suspect to be an oxlip outside of the correct habitat and geographical area, a false oxlip is your most likely suspect!
The flowers are more open and spreading, a little like an oxlip, but you can see the telltale orange flecks which indicate the cowslip parantage. Rather than nodding in a single direction, as a pure oxlip or cowslip would do, these flowers face in all directions. There is significant variability in the character or these hybrids, with some being closer to the primrose parent and some more strongly representing cowslip.