Monday, December 11, 2017

Blackbird, munchkin and snow

Our granddaughter has recently cleared the area outside our kitchen window between the path to the backdoor and the hedge as part of our intermittent attempts to manage it as a mini nature reserve.  A couple of days ago we put a small slightly rotten orange pumpkin (sold as a munchkin) in the centre of the area.  I bought in October as a small gesture towards Halloween and wanted to watch what would happen to it as it decomposed.  Yesterday the female blackbird at the top of the picture put in an appearance and was flicking leaves over in search of food.  Among other things she found fallen berries from the nearby rock whitebeam tree (Sorbus rupicola).  Her activities started to bury the munchkin (which she did not touch) with a layer of leaves and I reflected that birds must often help objects laying on the surface slowly to get covered up and buried.

Today we had our first snow of the winter accompanied by much hysteria on TV.  We caught a snow belt that moved in from northern France (closing the port of Calais) but we were right on the edge and it all melted quite quickly.  However, I think it is one of the coldest spell we have had in December for a long time.  The photo is a wider shot of the munchkin area much patronised by Mrs. Blackbird and, today, her mate.

Friday, December 08, 2017

On wingless females

Yesterday evening a male winter moth (Operophtera brumata) was attracted to the light from our kitchen window pane.

I know it is a male because the females are micropterous - almost wingless - and unable to fly.  In the past when I arrived home by car in winter I would often see dozens of males fluttering in the headlights along woodland lanes, but they do not seem to have been so common recently.

As a small boy, friends and I used to look for females of this species and mottled umber moths on the bases of tree trunks and in Canada I once saw several males similar to the winter moth fluttering round the base of a tree trunk where there were wingless females.

I used to wonder why some insects had this wingless female dimension.  Other examples are the vapourer moth and the autumn flying cranefly Tipula pagana.  The best explanation I have come across is by Malcolm Scoble in his book The Lepidoptera and I think it worth quoting at length:
Wing reduction is strongly related to environmental conditions.  Those few species where males are affected inhabit coastal habitats or small oceanic islands, areas where wind conditions are such as to prevent individuals flying directionally towards potential mates.  Jumping is a typical mode of progression in members of these species.  Wing reduction in females is strongly related to the degree of egg maturation at eclosion.  Well developed eggs leave little room for the flight muscles, which become reduced.  Reduction of flight muscles leads to flightlessness, a first stage in wing reduction,  Tympanal organs, which occur mainly at the base of the thorax or of the abdomen, also tend to become reduced or lost.  Females emerging from the pupa with well developed eggs have no need to sustain themselves while the eggs mature.  As long as males can find them, and provided eclosion occurs on a suitable foodplant, these females can lay their eggs rapidly.  Species exhibiting these characteristics are often active in the cold season (e.g. many Geometridae) where rapid oviposition, occurring before extreme conditions overtake individuals, is clearly advantageous.
In other words you can mate and lay all your eggs before you and your partner freeze to death and, since it is winter, you may be less likely to be eaten by a bird.
Reference: Scoble, Malcolm J. (1992)  The Lepidoptera.  Natural History Museum Publications, Oxford University Press

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

Late flying moth

A yellow-line quaker moth (Agrochola macilenta) settled on the outside of our kitchen window yesterday night.  It is an autumn-flying species, but rather infrequently recorded as late as December.  It is said to be attracted to decaying apples.  A. macilenta is a widespread species in England with larvae that feed on a variety of deciduous trees or, in the north, heather (Calluna).

The adult moth is rather sparingly and inconspicuously patterned (macilenta means 'lean' or 'meagre' referring to the markings), they are however distinctive especially the yellow and red almost straight submarginal lines that do not quite make it in good order to the wing tip.

Monday, December 04, 2017

Winter bumbles

On milder days the flowers on the Oregon grapes in the garden are attractive to late flying bumble bees.  The example above is, as far as I can tell, a buff-tailed bumble bee (Bombus terrestris) worker.  One feature of this is that it has a very narrow band of buff hairs between the black and white bands at the end of the abdomen.  The species is also known to have a third, winter-flying generation whose workers visit oregon grape and other winter flowering shrubs.

This Oregon grape is Mahonia x media 'Charity' which originated in a nursery in Northern Ireland and was selected in a Surrey nursery.  We have several different Mahonia species and hybrids in the garden but 'Charity' is among the most attractive.  The fruit of Oregon grapes can be used to make jams, jellies and in other recipes.  It has both an Award of Merit and a First Class Certificate from the Royal Horticultural Society, so it ticks nearly all the boxes: ornamental evergreen foliage and fragrant flowers in winter; edible fruit; attractive to wildlife.

Saturday, December 02, 2017

On the different lords-and-ladies

One of the most striking plants in late autumn and winter is Italian lords-and-ladies (Arum italicum) whose leaves appear in October or November whereas the commoner lords-and-ladies or cuckoopint (Arum maculatum) do not appear from the ground until late winter, January of February.

In our garden we have two subspecies of A. italicum: subsp. italicum and subsp. neglectum.  The latter plant is a native from West Sussex westwards, usually close to the coast, while the nominate subspecies is a garden plant that has escaped into the wild quite widely.  It has very distinctive leaves marked with white along the veins (sometimes described with the longer name Arum italicum subsp. italicum 'Marmoratum') whereas the veins in subsp. neglectum are far less of obvious.

The native species does not grow wild in our area so far as I know but A. italicum italicum occurs in a number of woods and hedges locally (some may be hybrids between the two subspecies).  Some of these are a long way from the nearest gardens and may be bird sown.  The plant depicted below appeared of its own accord on the shady side of a hedge in our garden and is steadily increasing in extent.

The second picture is of native subsp. neglectum and the third of common lords-and-ladies photographed in February in an earlier year.  The italicum were photographed earlier today and the leaves have been up for some weeks.

Refreshing my data on lords-and-ladies sent me to the bookshelf for Cecil Prime's wonderful monograph, largely on the British Arum species.  It covers not only the biology, ecology and distribution of the plants but includes fascinating information on its economic uses, folklore and vernacular etymology.  A masterly study -do get a copy: Prime, C. T.  (1960 and 1981)  Lords and Ladies. Collins New Naturalist series.

Friday, December 01, 2017

2 December 2017

I noticed, in Churchland Wood, that the hazels coppiced back in March this year still retain a full complement of green leaves whereas the larger hazels have lost theirs as have the coppiced sweet chestnuts and hornbeams.  Maybe it is because they got off to a late start.

In addition to the hazel green, there are variations on the same colour provided by woodsage and foxgloves making attractive fresh-looking patches throughout the coppice.

Another variation in colour is provided by gold and green field maple leaves.  Maples seem to do well in this area and this one is a seedling growing through the fence bordering the garden of Poplars Cottage.

As it was the beginning of December I cast about for any late stragglers among flowering plants but only managed to find a prickly sow-thistle (Sonchus asper) seemingly little damaged by recent frosts.


Friday, November 10, 2017

November diary 2017

30 November 2017.  One of the highlights of the month was the discovery, the other day by our granddaughter when she was cutting the hedge here of the abandoned summer nest of a dormouse.  Summer nests are larger and looser than those used for hibernation and normally placed higher from the ground.  The hedge in question is only a couple of metres from our kitchen window and grows near a busy path and car parking area, so the dormice must be tolerant of a fair amount of disturbance, though we have known them in our garden and the general area for many years.

The nest was beautifully and characteristically constructed of dead leaves and honeysuckle bark, but was unusual inasmuch as most of the leaves were from the wild service tree that grows nearby and the bark was stripped from Wilson's honeysuckle (Lonicera nitida) which is major element in the hedge at this point (see November 13 below).  Interesting to reflect that this alien shrub which is so widespread as a hedging plant in gardens maybe helping to conserve dormice, a legally protected species on the edge of its range in Britain.

29 November 2017.  In Churchland Wood everything seems brown and grey in the bitter north wind which rattles dead leaves across the ground.  One spot of brightness is a couple of clumps of sulphur tuft fungi (Hypholoma fasciculare) a common poisonous species growing here at the base of an overstood sweet chestnut.

On the top and side of the root plate at the end of our garden I found some common smoothcap moss (Atrichum undulatum) also a common woodland species.  Also known as Catherine's moss, it was once in the genus Catharinea, a name apparently given in honour of Catherine the Great of Russia (but note the slightly different spelling).  Such a generic name may have been coined with an eye to smoothing the way to a research grant.

23 November 2017.  Killingan Wood is very quiet just now apart from the rustle of the deep layer of leaves as I walk through.  In one place there has been, for as long as I can remember, a hump in the path, maybe an old heap of earth that has settled to a smooth swell like the back of a whale.

Various mosses grow around the edges but most of the surface is covered with a thin green patina which looks like an almost featureless slime under the microscope.  Maybe an alga, or the protonema, the earliest stage in the life cycle, of a moss or liverwort, but curious that it never seems to  to develop in any way.

Now that most of the leaves are down the evergreens are more obvious.  In Killingan we have ivy, holly, yew, one plant of spurge laurel (Daphne laureola) and, rather less welcome, an increasing number of cherry laurel bushes (below) sown from neighbouring gardens.  I sometimes think the wood will eventually be a species-poor mix of sycamore (another alien) with a cherry laurel understory.

16 November 2017.  New mushrooms continue to appear on the piles of wood chipping in Churchland Wood.  Today I found two species I have not seen before.  The first is, I think, a developing hare's-foot inkcap (Coprinopsis lagopus) and I am still working on the second (maybe a Psathyrella).

The woods are at their autumn best just now and most of the fungi are on the wood chip piles, here situated to the right of the foreground coppiced chestnut.

15 November 2017.  Along Jessmond Path I discovered two toadstools.  They must have been there for some time and I wondered why I had not noticed them before.  How much there must be that does not impinge on our consciousness.  One technique I use sometimes is to walk, say, 20 paces and then stop and have a really good look round.  Or to sit motionless in one place for as long as possible.  The longer one stays, the more will be seen.

Anyway, the toadstools in question are, I think, bluefoot boletes (Boletus cisalpinus), so named because if cut through the base of the stalk the flesh turns blueish.  They agree in every respect with the descriptions I have read, but one really needs to check the spores to be certain.  In the past they would have been identified as red-cracking boletes (Boletus chrysenteron) but this group has now been split into several species.  To add further to the confusion, both species have wandered in and out of the genera Boletus, Xerocomus and Xerocomellus.

The bits scattered round the bolete are the remains of sweet chestnuts eaten by squirrels or birds.

Despite the vernacular names, some authors say the bluefoot bolete has cracks on the skin of the cap (as below) whereas the red-cracking, rather paradoxically, does not.  Those who want the full story might visit this web site.  You have been warned!

The story of this bolete continued the next day when, having tried to take a spore print, I discovered several small moth larvae under the cap.  I wondered if they might be the agaric clothes moth Morophaga choragella which used to be called Tinea or Scardia boleti (promising names), but the larvae are clearly not of this species although A. Maitland Emmet says Boletus is 'a larval pabulum'.  Fungus-feeding micro moth larvae are usually found on bracket fungi, so I have put the bolete cap into a breeding chamber to see if I can hatch any moths out.  As the picture below shows, many of the tiny caterpillars decided to leave the toadstool as soon as it was in the box.

14 November 2017.  The laurustinus (Viburnum tinus) that seeded itself into our front hedge is flowering well this year and has both flowers and fruit from last year's flowers at the same time.  It is a Mediterranean shrub but seems to be doing well here, perhaps helped by climate change.  The berries are just about visible below and to the left of centre.

13 November 2017.  Our granddaughter was cutting the hedge today when she noticed a berry with a smaller one beside it.  It is the fruit of Wilson's honeysuckle, Lonicera nitida, a popular hedging shrub originally from China that often escapes into the wild here.  Our plants quite often have flowers, but we have not seen fruit before.

11 November 2017.  Along Columbine Path at the edge of Killingan Wood (TQ783192) I was looking for more galls on beech leaves and noticed some small tufts where branch veins joined the midrib on the underside of one leaf.  On the other side was a small bump, paler than the rest of the leaf.  These would appear to be the work of another gall mite, Monochetus sulcatus which I am sure will be quite widespread despite my being able to find any records.

Another pleasure was seeing a grey squirrel scrambling up a tree trunk at Ariel Cottage maybe 50 metres from our house.  It is a long time since I saw one of these and they are, maybe, returning now my granddaughter has left with her cats.  I am somewhat of a heretic in liking grey squirrels.

10 November 2017.  Coming up through Churchland Wood today I found these old galls on a fallen beech leaf.

They are caused, initially on green leaves before they have fallen, by the gall mite Eriophyes nervisequus and consist of small pits between the veins on the underside of the leaf known as 'erinea' and containing a felty down in which the mites live.  This gall has also been called Aceria fagineus.

9 November 2017.   Today my granddaughter cleared away the medlar tree that had been blocking the way the my Square Metre Project (an incense cedar had fallen across it and squashed down some of the branches).  I report on this project in another blog:

2 November 2017.  There are two pastures near our home, one is currently grazed by cattle and the other by sheep.  All the droppings in the sheep field are attracting half a dozen of more yellow dung flies (see below) while those in the cow pasture seem completely bereft of insect life.  It is difficult to understand why this should be the case, but I will seek for explanations.

1 November 2017.  Autumn is beginning to reach its best.  Here is a view across Killingan Wood Brick Pit.

On the woodland bank on the other side of Churchland Lane I found a flourishing colony of fuchsia (Fuchsia magellanica) on a south facing bank in ancient Churchland Wood.  This native of Argentina and Chile is widespread as a garden escape in northern Britain and Ireland but seems rather less common in South East England.

Another garden escape from that part of the world is Argentinian vervain, Verbena bonariensis, which, to my surprise, I found growing happily in a chestnut coppice in the same wood a couple of weeks ago.  One wonders if the success of these exotics has anything to do with climate change.