Thursday, February 01, 2018

Knapweed phyllaries

Yesterday I received my copy of the BSBI News from the Botanical Society of the British Isles.  It has been redesigned and has a new editor - Andrew Branson - and the results in my view are excellent, though I shall always have fond memories of reading and writing for the previous version under the editorship of Gwynn Ellis.

One article that interested me was "Ambiguity in recording Centaurea (knapweeds) taxa using MapMate".  This had coloured pictures of the phyllaries of what are considered to be the three British species (C. nigra var. nigra, C. nigra var. nemoralis and C. jacea) though it pointed out that hybrids were common.  ('Phyllaries' are the small leafy structures, or bracts, that surround the base of the flower/seed head.)

I immediately pulled on my boots and set off to my favorite patch of 'old' meadow where I found plenty of knapweed seed heads still perched on stiff, dead stems above the fallen grass.  These were plainly the nominate subspecies Centaurea nigra var. nigra.

A wonderful excuse to do some useful botanising in winter and to remind oneself on what to look forward to when summer returns.

Monday, January 22, 2018

A mid-January walk

The weather was warmer today with the sun shining and no rain.  Heading down the garden I found that the spurge laurel (Daphne laureola) had opened some of its flowers.  The bush appeared here of its own accord and the next nearest example I know of is about 500 metres away in a wood and the plant seems nowhere common in this part of East Sussex.

Further down the garden I found our bush of the winter flowering honeysuckle Lonicera x purpusii 'Winter Beauty' and was pleased to discover that the flowers were being attended by a couple of rather dark marmalade flies, Episyrphus balteatus. This very common hoverfly often appears here in the colder months and its presence on the honeysuckle again illustrates how important these winter flowering introductions can be to our native fauna.  Lonicera x purpusii is a hybrid between two Chinese species and I wonder what Chinese insects may be attracted to their flowers.

In Churchland Wood I photographed this single-stemmed hornbeam.  These trees are nearly always coppiced, but there are two or three that have been left to grow naturally in the wood and I often wonder why.  Maybe there was a use for larger pieces of the wood.

Underneath the trees the green leaves of bluebells are rising through the leaves as a reminder that spring is not far away.  Noise levels are increasing too with, today, several great tits calling loudly and a great spotted woodpecker drumming on an oak tree.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Invertebrates on witch hazel flowers

We have a witch hazel bush halfway down the garden making a fine show with its bright yellow, sweetly scented flowers contrasting with the cold and damp.

In 1993 I wrote a note (about the same garden) for the Entomologist's Record: Nocturnal invertebrates visiting flowers of Witch Hazels, Hamamelis mollis pallida and Hamamelis japonica cultivars, in January and I have posted an edited version here:

On 20th January 1993 I walked around our garden with a torch and inspected our Wintersweet, Chimonanthus fragrans and Witch Hazel, Hamamelis mollis pallida bushes both of which were in full bloom with their sweetly scented, pale flowers.

I found nothing on the Wintersweet, but the Witch Hazel had a variety of Diptera (two-winged flies) on the flowers. There was the mosquito Culiseta annulata quite clearly feeding; two species of fruit fly (Drosophilidae), Parascaptomyza pallida and Drosophila subobscura, the latter the more common of the two; an Anthomyiid and the Common Yellow Dung-fly, Scathophaga stercoraria.  Culiseta annulata, with its distinctive white-banded legs, in one of our commonest mosquitoes and is often found in winter in outhouses or caves.  Parascaptomyza pallida is also an extremely common fly that seems to be about in most months of the year.

On 30th January 1993 I again inspected the Hamamelis mollis pallida and also two H. japonica cultivars, "Primavera" and "Arnold" after dark. The flowers were attracting numerous invertebrates including woodlice, millipedes and spiders. Insects noted were the Common Earwig, Forficula auricularia (Dermaptera: Forficulidae); an owl fly (Dipt.: Psychodidae); Sepsis fulgens (Dipt.: Sepsidae); a Pherbellia sp. (Dipt.: Sciomyzidae); Tephrochlamys rufiventris (Dipt.: Heleomyzidae); Dromius linearis (Col.: Carabidae) and a brown Noctuid moth caterpillar.

The centre part of the Witch Hazel flower seems to be constructed for insect pollination and is relatively flat and open allowing easy access to the nectaries by short-tongued species. The pollen is sticky and, in the flowers I examined closely, had been successfully transferred from anthers to styles. Most of our Witch Hazels usually set a good quantity of viable seed and it would appear that they are adapted to pollination by nocturnal invertebrates. On day-time visits I have found only Sepsis fulgens and two non-biting midges, Smittia aterrima and Limnophyes prolongatus. The last two were, I suspect, simply sheltering in the bushes rather than feeding on nectar.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Another Stereum crust fungus

In my post on January 11th I posted a picture of a resupinate orange crust fungus.  I think this was probably Stereum hirsutum.

Today I found a much more luxuriant colony of what I think is probably the same species in Killingan Wood (TQ783192).  There is much fallen wood in this area, but only one - a large ash branch - carries such a display of fruiting bodies.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Winter mixed with spring

On a wind chill walk today I found the first expanded hazel catkins: always a sign to me that the wildlife season has started (though it never really finishes of course).  Soon the hedges will be thick with these catkins shedding their pale yellow pollen.

Also on hazel, this time on dead, usually standing, trunks is the common and widespread ascomycete fungus known as hazel woodwart (Hypoxylon fuscum).

In the very sheltered Killingan Wood brick pit I found precocious flowers on a primrose and beside it on the wet leaves a dead male mottled umber moth (Erannis defoliaria) a winter-flying species whose season is nearly over.  It used to be very common when I was young, but is thought to have declined in recent years.  Like the winter moth, the females have very reduced wings useless for flight.

Tuesday, January 09, 2018

January miscellanea

Although the countryside is bleak grey-green washed by a cold winter wind, there are still moments of brightness.  One of the best is the flowers on the gorse hedge that runs across Churchland Fields.  In warmer weather these scented golden blossoms attract bees and other insects, but it is too cold for any to be on the wing at the moment.

There are a few splashes of colour provided by fungi like this resupinate Stereum species on a a chestnut trunk that was cut down last March.

Or purple jellydisc (Ascocoryne sarcoides) growing here on a dead, but upright hornbeam trunk in Killingan Wood.  This was kindly identified by Nick Aplin via the Sussex Fungi Group

On the fauna side, one of our daughters spotted a well-camouflaged green caterpillar on a fern leaf that was pressed against our kitchen window pane.  The nearest look-alike I can find is the larva of the copper underwing (Amphipyra pyramidea).  There appears to be some feeding damage on the pinnae of the fern but the copper underwing should be a pupa at this time of year.  One fern-feeding noctuid is the small angle shades (Euplexia lucipara), but it isn't that.  It seems to enjoy its place between glass and frond, so I will leaves it to see what happens.

We seem to be experiencing a minor population explosion of what I think is the amphipod landhopper Arcitalitrus dorrieni.  This is a native of forests in New South Wales, Australia, but has become widespread here.  It occurs frequently in gardens and the pair of dead ones illustrated here were found on our sitting room floor - the first time we have seen the creatures indoors.  In life they are normally darker coloured than this.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

A memory of Rosebank

At Christmas in 2017 I came across this photograph which I had taken nearly ten years previously on 4 April 2008.  I had forgotten that I was ever there and would not have remembered where it was had I not been able to find details of my visit buried in my computer.  At first, I had no idea about when or why I had taken the picture, but I gathered fragmented recollections after a while.

The picture was taken looking east from an abandoned depot or lorry park called Rosebank beside the A22 just north of Polegate in East Sussex.  The fields run down to the Glynleigh Levels, a western branch of the larger Pevensey Levels, and the distant horizon is where the village of Hankham lies on a spur of higher land projecting northwards into the levels.  In the past it was spelt 'Handcombe' and was part of a 'Limb of the Cinque Port Liberty of Hastings'.  In the mid-distance the dark, straight hedge marks the line of the Cuckoo Trail, a cycle and pedestrian path along an abandoned track of the London-Brighton South Coast Railway.

This is a Low Weald landscape with little to excite the imagination: fields and trees (with a tree house), a Shetland pony, various fences and, on the left, a water-filled clay pit dug when the long-closed brickworks nearby was active.  Perhaps the significance of the scene is that it would not win any prizes, would not embellish the wall of a gallery or the page of a magazine.  Its somewhat nondescript virtues do, perhaps, have a Low Weald feel.

It is also represents only a fragment of time.  The camera shutter was open for maybe 100th of a second and that exact scene will never return.  It might be possible to go back to the site and frame a similar picture, but it would not be the same.  The pony would have gone, the tree house might not be there and the trees and fences would have changed.  And who knows what alteration might come over centuries and millennia?

The picture reminds me too of the huge volume of data that lies locked up in our brains because there is no reason or no one to open the door.  I have posted the picture in ‘the Cloud’, so others may look at it for one reason or another, but they will not have the memories I had of the afternoon I spent alone in that forgotten depot, recording the flora and fauna and its ecological significance for a proposed development.  As Virgil said sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt (there are tears in things and life’s transience moves the mind).