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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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.

Frosted seedheads

We had a wonderful hard frost just after Christmas so I took the opportunity to get out in the morning sunshine to take a few photos!

The frost serves to outline these seed heads, making them stand out against the background but also helping to highlight the structure which is best appreciated at this time of year when the leaves and flowers have fallen.

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These willowherb plants were growing in the churchyard. Each of the long, linear seed heads which cap the stem was originally filled with feathery seeds which float like a dandelion clocks when the pods split open and release them to the breeze.
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Many grass seed heads are fairly transient, disappearing as winter progresses but the seed heads of cock’s foot can remain on the stem for a long time after the seeds have been released.
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The spiky seed heads of burdock were slowly thawing where the sun caught them one one side whilst the frost remained clinging to the other. The hooked ends of the seedheads are prefect for catching onto the fur of passing animals which then transfer the seeds to new habitat.
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The seed heads of one of the umbellifers – known commonly as the carrot family. You can see the umbel structure which gives this family its name – the flowers are borne on a cluster of stems, each of which radiate from a single point. It’s easy to see the comparison with the ribs of an umbrella in these frosted remains.
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The seed heads of black knapweed. These are a member of the compositae family along with the burdock pictured above.

Three trillion answers to a single question

On the last day of November, the decadence of summer is long gone. The flowers and leaves, butterflies and bees were so easy to take for granted until autumn and then winter take them from us. But every season has its own treasures and the wind-whipped, leaf-stripped trees are on glorious display across the countryside.

One thought which always strikes me when I see winter silhouettes, is how amazingly adept trees are at achieving their structure in an infinite number of ways. A line of trees planted together will each grow to maturity in a different form. The form will be dictated by species, by sub-species perhaps, by individual genetic variation, phenotypic plasticity to adapt to the conditions, defense responses to biotic attack or abiotic damage such as frost and wind, competition avoidance strategies and more besides. There are as many answers as there are trees to the simple question of how to be upright. And whilst the tree is growing, the process is never complete as the tree grows adaptively to maintain its balance and posture with continual interaction with their environment.

One recent 2015 study put an estimate of 3 trillion on the number of trees in the world. The mind boggles to even begin to comprehend the variety and scale which this number encompasses, but here are nine examples from my walk near Muston Meadows at dusk this evening.

New Year Plant Hunt

Each year, the Botanical Society of the British Isles (BSBI) run a New Year’s Plant Hunt where they invite people to record as many species in flower as they can in the New Year – between 1st and 4th January.

After a few days away, and four plant hunts down, I decided to cheer up the first day back to work by carrying out a fifth and final Plant Hunt on the 4th of January, this time on home turf. Previous hunts had been in Exeter, Tyntesfield National Trust, Bristol City Centre and rather closer to home, in Stonesby Quarry and Branston just over the border in Leicestershire.

I started in the dark so the first few photographs are interesting examples of headtorch botany, but the sun steadily rose and the images soon lit themselves. I walked from Harlaxton village to the A1 along a stretch of the Grantham Canal, and then into the centre of town. Having stopped the clock for a morning at work, I headed back out at lunchtime to close out the three hours allowed for a search by heading up to the Hills and Hollows at the back of the town. The whole route was around 5.5 miles and took a little under 3 hours to complete.

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Green alkanet – Pentaglottis sempervirens – by headtorch

I counted up a total of 44 species on this hunt – the most of any of the individual five hunts undertaken which perhaps shows the benifit of walking on familiar ground! The full list and a montage of all the species is provided at the end of this post but I’ll focus now on a few examples of the kinds of flowers which I encountered and the trends which seemed to appear across four days of hunting for flowers in different habitats and counties.

One of the most fruitful locations seems to be cracks, crevices, edges and other overlooked places in built-up areas. Think of those splashes of green at the side of pavements, at the bottoms of walls and fences, or the edges of front gardens. Survival in locations such as these often means a quick turnaround from seed germination, to flowering, to setting seed before the opportunity vanishes. In this way, the species is maintained wherever niches arise, and persist with a constantly shifting distribution map. Such species encountered in this hunt include petty spurge, shepherd’s purse and annual meadow grass.

Then there are those species which are flowering precisely when they intended to. Gorse typically begins flowering on the Hills and Hollows to the east of Grantham in December and continues through into the summer although flowers can really be found at any time of the year. This gives rise to the saying ‘when gorse is out of flower, kissing is out of fashion’. Winter heliotrope is another species which is often found flowering over Christmas and into the new year – there is a colony of this growing beside the River Witham, right in the centre of town. Naturalised species can also be counted in the New Year Plant Hunt – these are non-native species which are growing wild without intervention Periwinkle is a brightly-coloured example of a winter-flowering naturalised species which was growing towards the Hills and Hollows.

Next are a bunch of slightly early spring species. These are those which are preparing to flower soon but have apparently been tricked into doing so a little earlier than usual by the clement conditions. Examples include shrubs – such as hazel, blackthorn, holly and dogwood – as well as some spring flowers such as primrose and lesser celandine. Another naturalised species on the list was wood spurge, a healthy self-set colony of which was flowering away at the base of a hedge towards the east of the town. These species typically flower between February and May so a January flowering is not excessively early.

Another common theme I have spotted is the propensity for species to flower where the vegetation has been cut recently. This can be easily visualised where the daisies and dandelions still brighten up most lawns. Along the Grantham Canal, it was noticable that hogweed and cow parsley both flower just to the sides of the towpath where there was a late-summer/early-autumn cut but are absent further out where the sward escaped the blades. Perhaps this works a little like the Chelsea Chop technique which delays and extends the flowering period, but cutting is also a form of stress to the plants, and this can encourage them to flower and set seed as a survival response.

Finally there are the long-season species – these are flowers which naturally flower late into the year. Examples include wood avens, red and white campion, white deadnettle, field speedwell and yarrow all of which were recorded flowering along the Grantham Canal towpath. The ever-delightful ivy-leaved toadflax also falls into this category flowering from May right through into the early winter – this delicate little flower grows in cracks and crevices in many of the walls throughout Grantham. The persistence of these species, especially considering there has been little frost to speak of so far this year, is broadly in-keeping with their general phenology.

It’s been a good few days and a great excuse to get out and find some wildlife in the depths (although clearly not the dead) of winter. I found a total of 64 different species across five hunts in four counties! Many thanks to BSBI for organising this – the deadline for the results is the 8th January and I’m looking forward to seeing the results and analysis which will follow their collation of records from around the country. From the conversations on twitter, it appears that many people have got involved this year. If you want to get involved next year, check out the BSBI webpage and get recording when New Year’s Day comes around again!

A montage of the photographs of all the species recorded on the Grantham New Year Plant Hunt is provided below, along with the complete species list.

Grantham Large

Daisy (Bellis perennis)
Annual meadow grass (Poa annua)
Lesser celandine (Ranunculus ficaria)
Cock’s foot (Dactylis glomerata)
Winter heliotrope (Petasites fragrans)
Primrose (Primula vulgaris)
Petty spurge (Euphorbia peplus)
Groundsel (Senecio vulgaris)
Ivy-leaved toadflax (Cymbalaria muralis)
Nipplewort (Lapsana communis)
Prickly sow-thistle (Sonchus asper)
Canadian fleabane (Conyza canadensis)
Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)
Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale agg.)
Herb Robert (Geranium robertianum)
Hazel (Corylus avellana)
Hogweed (Heracleum sphondylium)
Ox-eye daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare)
Red campion (Silene dioica)
Periwinkle (Vinca major)
Bramble (Rubus fruticosus agg.)
White dead-nettle (Lamium album)
Oregon grape (Mahonia spp.)
Common ragwort (Senecio jacobaea)
Dove’s foot cranesbill (Geranium mollis)
Common mouseear (Cerastium fontanum)
Perennial sowthistle (Sonchus arvensis)
Common field speedwell (Veronica persica)
Wood avens (Geum urbanum)
Shephard’s purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris)
Green alkanet (Pentaglottis sempervirens)
Red deadnettle (Lamium purpureum)
Feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium)
Pineapple mayweed (Matricaria discoidea)
White campion (Silene latifolia)
Cow parsley (Anthriscus sylvestris)
Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa)
Wall barley (Hordeum murinum)
Holly (Ilex aquifolium)
Wavy bittercress (Cardamine flexuosa)
Wood spurge (Euphorbia amygdaloides)
Gorse (Ulex europaeus)
Dogwood (Cornus sanguinea)
Smooth Hawk’s-beard (Crepis capillaris)

New Year Plant Hunt

The Botanical Society of the British Isles (BSBI) runs an annual ‘New Years Plant Hunt’ which invites people to record species in flower between 1st and 4th of January. The aim is to find as many species in flower as you can within a 3 hour period. This is partly for fun but will also provide a dataset which could be used to compare trends between years and potentially geographical differences too.

My effort was a little poor as I only had a lunch break to hunt in but I managed to find 9 species in flower on the edge of Grantham. Surprisingly, the majority of records were from amenity grassland (lawns) and roadsides rather than the more species rich habitats at the Hills and Hollows to the south-east of the town.

My list was as follows:

  • Daisy (Bellis perennis)
  • Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale agg.)
  • Shepherd’s purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris)
  • Field speedwell (Veronica persica)
  • Gorse (Ulex europaeus)
  • Annual meadow grass (Poa annua)
  • Groundsel (Senecio vulgaris)
  • Common chickweed (Stellaria media)
  • White dead-nettle (Lamium album)
White dead-nettle (Lamium album)
White dead-nettle (Lamium album)

All of the species were long-flowering rather than early specialists. A long flowering species can be found throughout the year such as dandelions, daisy and gorse – the old saying goes that ‘when gorse is out of flower, kissing is out of fashion’.

Gorse (Ulex europaeus)
Gorse (Ulex europaeus)

There are a range of species which selectively flower early in the year and can be found flowering as early as January – this includes species such as winter aconite, winter heliotrope and dog’s mercury. None of the species I spotted fell into this category.

Flower colour is a project I am exploring this year and it seems a good opportunity to consider the distribution of flower colours in January. Three of the species I found were white, four species are yellow, one species is green and one species is blue. This well reflects the colours of January flowers where white and yellow dominate; followed by green and blue; with pink and purple trailing at the back. For more information on this project, follow the Caratinoid&Betalain twitter feed or take a look at the Flower Colour UK blog.

Jan Colours

Things to do in January Number 3: Grasses in the snow

Snow changes everything, if only for a few days. You can walk through the fields and see exactly who has been where – in which spot the blackbirds have chosen to dig for food, which gap in the hedge the rabbits run through, where the heron stalks along the canal in the early morning. Here’s a slightly unusual one but it struck me how obvious all the grass seed heads are when walking through the snow up to Belmount Tower. Usually half the battle with grass ID can be spotting the distinctive heads against the mass of green and brown around them but they stand out beautifully against the white. Here are a few which should be easy to see!


Cock’s foot – Dactylis glomerata

Cock's foot – Dactylis glomerata panicle

So called because of the spur which you can see at the base of the seed head, this grass is a common find where management isn’t too heavy. In this case, it is doing well in a field with a low level of sheep grazing but roadsides, wastegrounds and field edges are other good places to find it.


Crested dog’s tail – Cynosurus cristatus

Crested dog's tail - Cynosurus cristatus panicle

This is a common, tufted perennial grass which is finer than some of the more boisterous grasses such as the cock’s foot above or the tufted hair grass below. Its distinctive feature is a line which runs from top to bottom and, a little like a parting, the seed grows one way or the other. This is distinct from some other similar grasses which grow all the way around in a cylindrical cone, a little more like a pipecleaner.


Tufted hair grass – Deschampsia cespitosa

Tufted hair grass – Deschampsia cespitosa panicleicle

This grass is large and imposing, growing in a tussock and sending its seed heads up and out a metre from the base. Its leaves are a good give-away if you’re in doubt – squeeze the blade between thumb and finger and you will find that it runs smoothly in one direction but drags with impressive friction if you try it the other. This grass is generally found in damper ground – this could be alongside rushes in a marshy grassland or simply a part of the field where the water collects.


Purple moor grass – Molinia caerulea

Purple moor grass - Molinia caerulea panicle

I think that this grass is purple moor grass – another large, tussock-forming species which can be up to a metre tall. Like the tufted hair grass, it is often found in slightly damper locations and is most commonly associated with acidic habitats such as moorlands, as the name suggests.


Common bent – Agrostis capillaris

Common bent – Agrostis capillaris panicle

This is a common grassland species which is likely, along with crested dog’s tail, to be one of the main constituent species within this field. It has a fine, spreading panicle (the term for the entire cluster of flowers) and likes nutrient poor conditions. Again, its prevalence will be down to the right level of management (grazing) to keep the nutrients low.

The official grassland managers (with voluntary assistance from the rabbits and deer of course)
The official grassland managers (with voluntary assistance from the rabbits and deer of course)