Friday, August 10, 2018

Start of August 2018

There is a pair of wood pigeons that visits our garden every day.  In late winter they eat the ivy berries in the hedge, but currently they like to perch together for a while on the same place on a branch of the birch tree just beyond the hedge.  Here they indulge in a little 'billing and cooing' though the 'cooing' aspect is usually not evident.  I wonder why they like this particular perch.  Maybe it is because there is lots of ivy nearby and they got used to it when they were homing in on the berries.


As well as mint beetles, our various mint plants often attract the little day-flying moth Pyrausta aurata. 


While looking for these we came across this strange looking creature feeding on mint.  It turned out to be the larva of a tortoise beetle (Cassida viridis).  The two prongs at the rear of the creature are used to carry excrement - turd kebabs - supposedly to discourage predators and the spines along the sides can be used for similar purposes.


Our buddleia has been popular with a wide range of commoner butterflies and moths including the migrant  painted lady and humming-bird hawk, but it was good to see a couple our native silver-washed fritillaries. 


Today the drought has ended with heavy falls of rain, but the ground will still be very dry for a long time.


Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Report from the drought

Itis now around seven weeks since we had any rain and the countryside is increasingly drying up.  In the lane outside there are places where only a few of the deeper rooted plants remain green.



These are mostly tufts of grass, but there is also smooth hawksbeard with the yellow flowers on the right, wood dock, greater plantain, pineapple weed and other species.  Along the middle of the lane all the grass has died (but may recover when rain arrives) leaving only the green and rather wilted rosettes of dandelions.


On one walk I came across a fine slow worm crossing the lane and heading for the shade.


Churchland Fields on the western side of the lane are very brown and dry but some plants like creeping thistle and knapweed do not seem to be suffering.  In the picture below looking across to Sedlescombe church, as well as the brown grass and thistle there is a flourishing patch of yellow common fleabane in full flower: the whole makes a subtle pattern of buffs, greens, mauves, whites and yellows bordered by dark summer woods and hedges.






Thursday, May 31, 2018

Mealybug destroyer at large

Today I spotted a weird looking little creature powering around the rim of  a flowerpot containing a plant bought yesterday from the Staplecross Shrub Centre.  After Googling about I tracked its identity down to the larva of a mealybug destroyer, Cryptolaemus montrouzieri, a small Australian ladybird which, as its name suggests, is predatory on mealybugs.


This species now seems to be quite widely used to control mealybugs in the horticultural industry and this was no doubt how it arrived in Staplecross, perhaps brought with the many plants imported from Holland.  It is not winter hardy in this country.

Monday, May 28, 2018

Late May highlights 2018

Our granddaughter brought home a spray from a tree with which I was unfamiliar.  It was trained against a wall of a house in Ellenwhorne Lane a kilometre of so north of here.  It turned out to be kiwifruit, Actinidia deliciosa.  We found a caterpillar of Svensson's copper underwing, Amphipyra berbera, on it.

The caterpillar is very similar to the common copper underwing, Amphipyra pyramidea, but can be distinguished by the continuous lateral white line behind the head (it fades out for a couple of segments in A. pyramidea), the black speckled forelegs and the red-tipped spine at the end of the body.  It feeds on various trees and shrubs and seems quite happy munching away at the kiwifruit leaves.  The species is widespread here in East Sussex, but less common than A. pyramidea.

Another interesting moth was the appearance of a rather battered pale tussock, Calliteara pudibunda, on our lighted kitchen window.  This is a male with pectinated orange antennae. Sixty years ago when we worked in the Rother Valley hop gardens we often came across the beautiful golden haired caterpillars that were known as 'hop dogs'.


Halfway down the garden a very attractive combination of plants has occurred of its own free will: a mixture of wild yellow archangel (Lamium galeobdolon) and a garden cranesbill, Geranium macrorrhizum I think.  I am sure it would be difficult to create deliberately.


I was also struck by a white-flowered plant of herb-robert (Geranium robertianum) that has splayed itself out on the back wall of the house unchallenged by any other vegetation.






Friday, May 11, 2018

Rabbits return

Rabbits have returned to the garden.  Yesterday there was one young one and today there were three and it was a pleasure to watch them gamboling about enjoying life.  They are welcome here.

A week or so after posting this the three rabbits had gone and a black and white cat (not ours) was seen sneaking across the lawn with a dead one hanging limply from its mouth.


There were some interesting insects in Churchland Wood a couple of days ago.  An early  broad-bodied chaser dragonfly (Libellula depressa) perched on a bluebell.  I wondered where it had come from as there are no water bodies nearby in which it might have bred.


In the same area I noted this mating pair of craneflies, Tipula varipennis.  Usually found in lush woodland, there are also records from highland and island areas without tree cover.  One of the distinctive features of this species is the thickened front and mid femorae of the female.


Our large bird cherry tree has flowered spectacularly this year (as it usually does) and has been shedding petals like snow for several days.  Some have settled on a water butt and the photo below not only shows this but a reflection of myself - a rare guest appearance - holding the camera.







Thursday, May 03, 2018

Madder and madder

An unusual-looking weed I have been nursing along in a seed tray wher it sowed itself has now flowered and turns out to be field madder (Sherardia arvensis).  Although common in Britain and across the temperate world, this is the first time I have come across it.



Like its related species common madder (Rubia tinctorum) and wild madder (Rubia peregrina), field madder has been used to make a red or pink dye.  The generic name Sherardia is in honour of the 17th/18th century English botanist William Sherard.

In the welcome spring sunshine witches' brooms show up well among the pale green leaves and the blue sky.  They are probably caused by the fungus Taphrina betulina, but sometimes by other organisms.



Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Bluebells, orchids, goldilocks & ferns

With warmer weather spring is at its best, so here is an almost mandatory picture of bluebells (with a badger track running through them)


The early purple orchid colony I found in the clay pit in Killingan Wood is flowering now.


The flower spikes do not stand out well against the dead leaves and greenery of the woodland floor, but they are attractive close to.


Another first for the clay pit was the discovery of a solitary plant of goldilocks (Ranunculus auricomus), an ancient woodland indicator.  The flowers nearly always lack a full complement of petals, though I have not seen an explanation.  Maybe their need to attract pollinating insects is not great.


There are many species of fern in the clay pit and this is the best season of the year to separate them as the unfurling fronds are often more distinctive than they are later in the year.  Below are pictures of the narrow-leaved buckler fern (Dryopteris carthusiana) and soft shield-fern (Polystichum setiferum) with its characteristic crozier-like frond tips.







Monday, April 16, 2018

April lepidoptera

Butterflies and moths are becoming more frequent again as the weather gets warmer.  So far in the garden I have seen brimstones, peacocks and the comma (Polygonia c-album) below sunning itself on a flagstone.  I sometimes wonder quite how the aerodynamics work with the ragged-edged wings of this very capable flier.


On the moth front we were surprised to see on 11th April a small magpie (Anania hortulata) on our sitting room ceiling.  This normally emerges from June to August and such an early record possibly indicates that the caterpillar had found somewhere to pupate undisturbed indoors.  

The generic name Anania is a figure of speech known as a litotes (e.g. 'not bad') which, in this instance, could translated as 'not unattractive'.  However, the moth was originally placed in the genus Eurrhypara which means 'well greasy'.  The wings were said to have a greasy appearance, a feature which escapes me.


A very pretty Geometrid moth (see below) that normally flies in April and which I haven't seen for some time is the streamer (Anticlea derivata) appeared the other night on our lighted kitchen window.


This has caterpillars that feed on the leaves and flowers of wild roses, reminding of William Blake's poem The Sick Rose

O Rose thou art sick.
The invisible worm
That flies in the night
In the howling storm:

Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.

The scientific name is interesting.  Anticlea was the mother of Ulysses and she is said to have died of grief because her son was away too long at the Trojan War, though I fail to see why this relates to the moth. The specific name derivata means 'a diverted stream' and presumably refers to the fine black lines (the streamers) crossing the outer part of the forewings. 


Friday, April 06, 2018

Spring arrives

The weather has now turned warmer - up to 15 degrees C today.  Over the past week a wood mouse has been sharing some barley flakes put out for the birds.  Here it looks a bit on the wet side and seems to have the tip of its tail missing, but having survived the worst of the winter it might now have a chance.


In contrast to the damp mouse, today a comma butterfly sunned itself on the concrete path.  Almost the first butterfly of the year.


The early dog violets (Viola reichenbachiana) are starting to come out in various places in the garden and woods.  They flower earlier than common dog violets (V. riviniana) and are a somewhat redder shade of mauve which is distinctive when one is familiar with both species.  The flowers also have a dark spur at the rear rather than the paler one of the common dog violet.


The clay pit in Killingan Wood is very attractive just now with many patches of wood anemones but very few bluebells.  The hornbeams, which are the dominant trees in most of the wood and the oaks, maples and other species tend to grow on the clay sides of the pit whereas the central sections have mainly been colonised by ash.


In one out of the way corner I found a colony of about 25 early purple orchids (Orchis mascula), a species that seems to do particularly well in this wood.  I shall return when the flowers are out.




Tuesday, March 20, 2018

A common rough woodlouse

On emerging from our back door today after a second spell of cold and snow, the first thing that caught my eye was a woodlouse about a metre up on the wall.  Not exactly a sheltered position but one that perhaps gathers some heat from the kitchen behind.


Woodlice (or isopods) are interesting subjects of study for those who like invertebrates.  There is a manageable number - nearly 40 British natives or outdoor breeders (and a few more in greenhouses) -and, unlike many invertebrates they are around all the time and can often be found just as easily in summer as in winter.  They also have an interesting range of parasitoids and predators, do not sting or bite, cannot be classed as pests and are easy to collect and keep alive.  Identification is fairly straightforward with the AIDGAP guide A key to the Woodlice of Britain and Ireland by Stephen Hopkin and published by the Field Studies Council.  There is also a British Myriapod and Isopod Group which promotes the study of these and some other invertebrate groups: http://www.bmig.org.uk/

The woodlouse in the picture on our wall above is the common rough woodlouse, Porcellio scaber, a very common species in the British Isles.  The orange bases of the antennae in this example is a frequent feature of this species.



Thursday, March 15, 2018

A few spring flowers

Between bouts of cold the earliest spring flowers are starting to bloom.  There are a few anemones in the woods and the new growth of dog's mercury is a bright glossy green.  In a woodland garden near home I noticed one clump of daffodils.  They look like wild daffodils (Narcissus pseudo-narcissus) and do not appear to be part of any organized garden.  So far as I could see they are the only clump of daffodils in this area and they seem to have spread from one bulb.  If so I wonder how they got there.


It might be slightly too large for the true species, but the characteristic two-toned flowers have the wildlings slightly downward drooping habit.

Other minor pleasures include the first celandines and a dandelion in flower.




Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Snowball pink

The Beast from the East as the bitterly cold Siberian anticyclone has been dubbed brought heavy snow showers this morning.


Just outside our window were the skeletal remains of a Deptford pink (Dianthus armeria) with each grey brown shuttlecock of seed head delicately holding up a small ball of snow like a supplicant making an offering.  This pink has been surviving as a self sown annual in our garden for maybe 30 years and needs no looking after.  It often seeds itself into pots of other plants where it can be left as its slender shoots do not mask the main attraction.  Then, in summer, it produces a sequence of small dark pink flowers.


There is a fine appreciation of this modest native flower by Andy Byfield here: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2012/jun/21/deptford-pink-plantlife






Saturday, February 24, 2018

The lane in the cold

Along the lane they have been cutting the hedge by machine (permissible until 1st March).  The rather brutal results with shredded wood and white broken branches harmonises well with the bitterly cold wind from Siberia.  It reminds me of of Totes Meer, the painting by Paul Nash: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/nash-totes-meer-dead-sea-n05717


There are some very Gothic shapes among the battered bushes, especially where the hedge is thin, but I expect it will all fill out quite nicely.  The other day we had a visitor from Alberta in Canada and she asked why we had hedges round our fields instead of fences - that gave me an opportunity to hold forth on the English landscape and its conservation.


Despite the frigid weather and brutal hedging work, there were some signs of spring in the lane.  Patches of snowdrops, little 'tommies' (Crocus tommasinianus) escaping from our neighbour's garden and a few flowers on lesser periwinkle.






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.