Saturday, December 23, 2006

Wrinkled crust fungus, Phlebia radiata

I found this Martian landscape of a fungus when I was collecting firewood in the garden today. Usually it grows on oak, but this was on dead rowan branches.

Monday, December 18, 2006

A deer in sheep's clothing

In the fields of the Dudwell Valley east of Heathfield in East Sussex there are many fallow deer and, from time to time, they like to graze with the sheep.

This is classic Rudyard Kipling country of the High Weald opposite Pook's Hill where Puck resides.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Blue tits in the Mahonias

We have quite a few Mahonia bushes in the garden here. With their long, late flowering racemes of yellow flowers, they often attract honey and bumble bees in midwinter.

Today though I noticed a few birds among the flowers and it was clear that blue tits have learned how to sip the nectar from the shallow inflorescences.

I wondered how widespread this was as I have not seen the birds doing this before though we have had the Mahonias for many years.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Fungus or alga?

The blackberry-purple plant in the pictures above has completely defeated me. It was growing on a sheer 'cliff' of Purbeck limestone in a shady gill south of Burwash Common, East Sussex and had a texture and shape similar to a cup fungus. There were a few more higher up the bank where the limestone was covered in a very thin layer of moss, but I saw them nowhere else in the gill.

A mycologist friend has suggested they might be an alga rather than a fungus, but that is as far as I have got. If anyone can suggest what this might be, or who else I might ask, I would be very grateful

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Veteran oak in the High Weald

As it is National Tree Week (22 November - 3 December), I thought I would post a picture of a wonderful ancient oak tree I came across a few days ago. It is deep in the countryside to the south of Burwash Weald, East Sussex and clearly has been pollarded long in the past. Despite the fact that its trunk is half missing and hollow it seems to be in robust health, though the more horizontal branches will be getting very heavy and will eventually fall.

It probably should be re-pollarded in stages, but this is a tricky course of action and it will be essential to get advice from experts in the management of ancient trees. The longer it survives, the more chance there will be for some of the invertebrates and lower plants associated with this kind of habitat to colonise the middle-aged oaks behind as they grow older.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Tree mallow hopper, Eupteryx melissae

Another discovery from my epic field trip to the suburbs of Bexhill-on-Sea. In an abandoned garden I found many large plants of tree mallow, Lavatera arborea. Their leaves were an unusual whitish green (see top picture), undoubtedly the effect of locust-like numbers of the plant hopper Eupteryx melissae that flew from the mallows in clouds evey time one of the plants was shaken.

This hopper, which also feeds on labiates, has not often been recorded in Sussex and,though I have frequently come across tree mallow, I have not seen the insect before.

People sometimes ask how I identify some of these more obscure insects. In a case like this where the species is clearly associated with a plant whose name I know I usually go to the Ecological Flora of the British Isles.

Under tree mallow there are only two options among the insects that enjoy eating this plant and one of them is a leaf hopper (Cicadellidae) called Eupteryx melissae. There are some pictures of this on the Internet and I get confirming details from the Royal Entomological Society's Handbook on the Cicadellidae.

Turnstones (Arenaria interpres) in Bexhill

I was watching a small flock of turnstones working their way over the shingle beach in a very urban part of Bexhill-on-Sea this afternoon.

I was surprised when they hopped up on to the promenade and wandered about like so many little town pigeons. Eventually they crossed to the wide strip of close-mown amenity grassland backing the promenade and were still busily feeding there when I left.

This small water-bird is generally widespread round the coast of Britain in winter.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Red cage fungus, Clathrus ruber

Walking down to the village shop in Sedlescombe, East Sussex today I was surprised to see a perfect fruiting body of a red cage fungus, Clathrus ruber.

It was growing among grass at the base of a hedge by a well trodden path close to the main road and it is the first time I have ever seen one.

Roughly the size of a tennis ball, this strange vegetable is a type of stinkhorn and does have a very bad smell to attract the flies that spread the spores found in the gooey black slime inside the lattice. From a distance it did not look like a living thing at all but more of a convoluted and twisted piece of plastic the product, maybe, of a 5 November bonfire.

The red cage is another one of these 'Mediterranean' species that are extending their range supposedly due to the warming of the climate and has followed very much the same route as the ivy bee, Colletes hederae, appearing first in the Channel Islands then later along the south coast and the West Country. I have not yet found any previous Sussex records, but I am sure there are a few and would be interested to hear from anyone if they know of any.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Horse chestnut leaf miner, Cameraria ohridella

Today I found a large horse chestnut in Oaklands Park, Sedlescombe, quite heavily infested by the fairly-new-to-Britain leaf mining moth Cameraria ohridella. I think this must already have been recorded in Sussex though I have not been able to find anything specific.

This species, which has been much in the news lately due to the damage it is doing to horse chestnut trees, was was first observed in Macedonia in the late 1970s and was described as a new species of the genus Cameraria in 1986. In 1989 it appeared unexpectedly in Austria and has since spread throughout central and eastern Europe. It was first found in the UK in Wimbledon in July 2002 and has since been recorded in many parts of south-east England.

Brown patches on horse chestnut leaves are also caused by the fungus Guignardia aesculi and these may be confused with mines of C. ohridella. However,the blotches caused by the fungus are often outlined by a conspicuous yellow band and do not appear translucent when held up to the light.

In the picture above the difference between the greyish white blotches of the leaf mines and the darker brown, yellow edged patches caused by the fungus can be clearly seen.

For more details on the moth and of the Forestry Commission survey of its spread follow this link.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Two spiders, Araneus quadratus

On a wet afternoon in a rough field locally, I noticed these two spiders low down in the grass. They are both Araneus quadratus, an orb-web species, and both appear to be females. The one on the right seems to have laid all her eggs, hence the slightly shrivelled abdomen, while the one on the left is waiting to go.

Although the two seem quite at ease with the world, the situation had a certain air of menace about it and I suspect both spiders are very alert to the other's presence. This species is quite variable in colour as the picture shows.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Leocarpus fragilis in Flatropers Wood

Yesterday I led a walk around Flatropers and Bixley Woods looking for fungi and anything else we could find. Fungi were interesting but not quite as abundant as one might have expected after a warm and relatively wet late summer.

One organism that was new to me was the slime mould Leocarpus fragilis (a Myxomycte, not a fungus). A small patch on a dead Scot's pine needle stood out on the woodland floor due to its bright chrome yellow colour. I put it in a tube for later inspection and, when I had a closer look in the evening, it had turned from a yellow plasmodium (the slime stage) into the greyish brown, grape-like fruiting bodies shown above. Some remnants of the yellow plasmodium can still be seen.

Identification was relatively easy using The Myxomycetes of Britain and Ireland by Bruce Ing (Richmond Publising, 1999)

Monday, October 16, 2006

The day of the harlequin

Today on an amazingly warm October afternoon I found my first harlequin ladybird, Harmonia axiridis, on ivy blossom in Hastings. During the next five minutes I found several colour forms, each on a different ivy each in the same small area. The red and orange ones are the succinea form and the black one with red spots the spectabilis form.

This very successful and aggressive invertebrate has been spreading through North America and Europe and, more recently, Britain. They tend to get to the food first and are therefore out-eating other ladybirds. They can also reach nuisance proportions when they hibernate in houses.

For more details of the harlequin see this link.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Cake with wild service berries

Having gathered a quantity of wild service or chequer berries when I visited the mighty tree at Udimore, East Sussex last week, I decided they should be put to good use (as well as trying to grow some more trees).

After discussion with granddaughter Jessica, we decided to use one of her fruit cake recipes substituting chequer berries for raisins. This worked spectacularly well and the cake was delicious. Today some TV people came to do a documentary on the tree and its uses and we were able to film the making, baking and eating of this recipe. As far as we know this is a completely novel use of the fruit, but well worth the trouble.

The TV programme Tales from the Country will, by the way, be on ITV nationally on a Thursday evening in early January.

The recipe is as follows:

Jessica’s Chequer Berry Cake

by Jessica Roper, Sedlescombe, East Sussex. 10 October 2006

A cake made with soft, ripe chequer or wild service berries, Sorbus torminalis. These are equivalent to raisins or sultanas but have a sharp, lemony taste. The whole berry, with the seed, is used and gives the cake a cool texture. Be careful to remove any small stalks though.

120 grams butter or margarine
170 grams caster sugar
150 grams chequer berries (wild service berries)
225 millilitres water
1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
½ teaspoon mixed spice
2 eggs beaten
120 grams plain flour
120 grams self-raising flour
Pinch salt

Boil butter/marg, sugar, fruit, bicarbonate of soda, spice in the water stirring for about 2 minutes. Leave to cool.

Mix in the eggs.

Sieve in flour and salt.

Pour mixture into a 7 inch cake tin and bake for 50 minutes to 1 hour (until a skewer comes out clean) in a pre-heated oven at gas mark 4 or 180 degrees C.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Hornbeam fusion

I came across this wonderful tree (or trees) in Brede recently. It is a hornbeam, Carpinus betulus, once part of a hedging operation, maybe in the 19th century. Perhaps four shoots came up from the horizontal and survived survived to make today's silvery trunks.

The tree reminded me of Rodin's famous sculpture of the Burghers of Calais (plenty of pictures of that on the Web).

Thursday, October 05, 2006

The overgrown pond

Just east of the busy A28, in the corner of a pasture at the end of a hedge, an old pond dreams of its youth when it was home to frogs and newts, when the cattle drank among the yellow flags cooling their feet in the marginal mud.

Now the water is gone, the willows are dead or dying and the marsh is turning to woodland. In the evening I sheltered here from the rain, watching a double rainbow arching over the hills towards Udimore and little squadrons of small craneflies gyrating in the last of the sunlight.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

The great chequer tree collapses

The huge wild service tree, Sorbus torminalis, in Udimore, East Sussex, thought to be the largest in Britain, has collapsed still further and most of its branches lie spreadeagled on the ground.

As with many trees, it has produced a bumper final crop of fruit on the surviving parts to the left of the top picture. But is it final? I think parts of it may survive for a while and the roots may even send up some suckers protected from grazing within the wreckage of the mother tree.

I first saw this particular tree as a picture in a book published in 1945 - it was large then - and it has been on television three times over the last thirty years. Hopefully it will star one more time before its last leaves are shed.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Larva of The Festoon, Apodia limacodes

The recent winds have blown some interesting caterpillars out of our local trees. Today one of the grandchildren brought in the one in the picture above, a Festoon Moth, Apodia limacodes - they always have this peculiar woodlouse shape.

Although this species is reasonably widespread in South East England, this is the first caterpillar I have seen. Sometimes known as Apodia avellana is on oak feeder associated with ancient woodland. It is a BAP species categorised as 'nationally scarce'(Notable/Nb) and one of only two British members of the family Limacodidae (the other is The Triangle, Heterogenea asella).

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Three's a crowd

It looks here as though the spider on the right caught the fly and wrapped it up before being pushed to one side of the web by the scorpion fly with the orange tail who is enjoying a free lunch.

A small drama in our East Sussex garden.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Horned leaf hopper, Ledra aurita

On a visit to the Sussex Wildlife Trust's offices in Henfield, I was shown an unmistakable horned leaf hopper, Ledra aurita, that one of the members had brought in for identification.

One of the largest British Homoptera, these insects are so well-camouflaged on the tree trunks and branches where they are normally found that they are seldom seen, though maybe they are quite common. In our area I think I have only come across them twice in the last 35 years.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

More flowers in more meadows

Once again I have taken a walk around the meadows in the Marline Valley west of Hastings and been surprised by the colourfulness of the flowers. In places there is a purple haze of knapweed, Centaurea nigra: elsewhere yellow fleabane, Pulicaria dysenterica, mingles with pink marsh woundwort, Stachys palustris or bluish mauve water mint, Mentha aquatica.

I was struck by the fact that fleabane seems to comprise about 50% of some of these colourful patches and there are very few other plants involved. What prevents a monoculture from developing and why are the two major constituent plants so evenly mixed?

Another dimension is the smell. Walking through meadows like this delivers a complex, constantly changing olfactory experience quite lost in modern grass fields. And of course, there are the proverbial clouds of butterflies and bees all enjoying the experience too and adding sound as well as movement. A meadow for all senses.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Black-encrusted beech bark

Black beech trunk
Black beech trunk
I have led a number of walks through Flatropers Wood reserve near Rye in East Sussex recently and several people have asked why the bark of one beech tree in a plantation of many trees is covered practically all over with a black, lichen-like encrustation and, indeed, what it is.

If it isn't a lichen, and I tend to think it isn't, I wondered if it might be some sort of alga or fungus. But whether alga or not, why does it only grow on one of the trees? The tree, by the way, is very much alive and appears to be in perfect health and the black encrustation is wholly superficial and quite easy to rub off.

Note: A week or so after publishing this I concluded that the black encrustation was the microfungus Ascodichaena rugosa.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Bay sucker gall, Trioza alacris

I found in Bexhill that the leaves of many bay trees, Laurus nobilis, were heavily infested with galls of the Psyllid plant hopper Trioza alacris.

I have often seen these galls on the bay trees that are, or used to be, so popular in suburban areas, but this is the first time I have seen the nymphs of the little creatures that cause them. They are covered with a grey, waxy material and a fluffy white extrusion.

This is an introduced species (as of course are bay trees) that has been spreading northwards in Britain.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Ringlet butterflies in 2006

The ringlet butterfly, Aphantopus hyperantus, seems to be having a particularly good year here in East Sussex. I have seen it quite commonly in five or six different places.

The one in the photo was in the Brede Valley part of our village of Sedlescombe and it is a butterfly that prefers damper grassland.

Part of the reason why butterflies often have eyes on their wings is so that predators will attck these rather than the head proper. The photo shows that this works as the butterfly has lost a chunk out of its wings where the 'eyes' are situated.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Silver-washed Fritillaries & White Admirals

This year, 2006,is proving a very good one for some of our woodland butterflies such as the silver-washed fritillary, Argynnis paphia (above) and the white admiral, Limenitis camilla.

Both species are quite abundant in Bixley and the adjacent Flatropers Wood (see here) in Beckley and in Pond Wood, part of the Brede High Wood complex (see here).

Hopefully they will spread even further over the next few years. Part of the reason for their success is, I believe, that they are powerful fliers and can recolonise new areas fairly easily whereas the spring fritillaries, wood whites and other butterflies with less powerful flight are continuing to decline.

Friday, July 07, 2006

A Whatlington meadow

Yesterday I walked from the small village of Whatlington in East Sussex along the footpath that follows the tiny river Line to the east. About half a mile from the village there is the most astonishingly splendid wet meadow, though fairly dry after the recent summer heats. There is such a riot of colour here that it looks more like a large herbaceous border than a field. The purple loosestrife, Lythrum salicaria, is magnificently abundant and there are masses of perennial sow-thistles, meadow vetchling, hogweed and other summer flowers with plenty of bird and insect life.

This field is really unclassifiable and I have never seen anywhere quite like it. I suspect it has simply been abandoned in the sense that it is no longer grazed or cut (apart from the path) and the rising scrub indicates that it will be woodland in a few years time unless managed as rough grass. Like the bomb sites in post World War II London, transitional habitats often have an astonishingly rich biodiversity, but only for a short while. In the case of the Line valley (and many other places) it would be good if areas could be allowed to get to closed canopy woodland, then cleared back, even ploughed, so that the whole process of succession could start again. The different habitat phases would not be in the same places for long but, over a given area, there would always be some areas at the bare earth stage and some at the closed canopy stage and everything in between.

This field is at TQ766180 and there is full public access via the footpath. Parking is not easy in Whatlington village, but there is a small lay-by on the main road by the church. Follow the river bank eastwards from the village hall and cross left over the first bridge you come to, then turn right and follow the path to the meadow. A bonus before you reach the meadow is the quantities of beautiful demoiselle damselflies flitting about the brambles. If you feel like it you can walk right through to the A21, but I could stop in a meadow such as the one described for ever.

Friday, June 30, 2006

Brown argus, Aricia agestis, in Hastings

I recently saw a brown argus butterfly in another visit to the Marline Valley meadows, an SSSI on the western outskirts of Hastings. These butterflies are markedly smaller than the common blues that they fly alongside and the males as well as the females are brown.

Although quite common in places on the chalk, this butterfly seems to be rarely seen elsewhere in Sussex and, where it does occur, it is usually on, or near, the coast. The main foodplant of the caterpillars is rock-rose, Helianthemum chamaecistus, but this does not occur in Sussex away from the chalk, so the Marline larvae are probably eating the alternatives of stork's-bill or dove's-foot cranesbill.

The butterfly was recorded from Marline Meadows in 1989 and it is good to know that a colony is still there. As Jeremy Thomas says in his Butterflies of Britain & Ireland populations away from chalk, limestone or dunes are "invariably small and very rare."

The first generation adults are probably over by now, but there should be a larger second generation from late July to early September.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Lesser stag beetle, Dorcus parallelipipedus

The female lesser stag beetle shown above appeared in our bedroom the other night (the smaller mandibles and two bumps on the forehead distinguish it from the male). I think it probably exited from a log of dead birch wood I had brought home earlier in the day as this species spends its early stages in such habitats.

The lesser stag beetle turns up from time to time in our part of East Sussex but there are no authenticated records of Lucanus cervus, the stag beetle proper. This is a bit of a mystery as this is a heavily wooded area with plenty of suitable habitat and the species seems common enough in surrounding areas. I often thinks that gaps of this kind occur because, at some time in the past, the species has been locally wiped out by a predator, parasite or disease. Sometimes, of course, they come back again, like the hornet that appeared widely in East Sussex (or reappeared) about four of five years ago and now seems perfectly happy.

Male lesser stag beetles have bigger 'antlers' that the females, but nowhere near the size of the males of their larger relative. Anyway, our lesser stag beetle, after posing for her photograph, was released into the garden.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Ctenophora nigricornis - an unusual cranefly

One of the more spectacular insects I have seen this year in Brede High Woods is this cranefly that fancies itself as an ichneumon.

Ctenophora nigricornis is a Red Data Book species that breeds in dead timber in ancient woodland and, although widespread in Britain, there have been very few recent records. In East Sussex the only other sighting is from St. Dunstan's Farm near Rushlake Green. The horn-shaped ovipositor is for penetrating dead wood.

A curious thing about these and some other flies is why they look somewhat like ichneumon wasps. So far as I know, icheumon wasps are not especially distasteful and the only thing they sting is their host when they lay an egg, so is it a defence strategy, or just an effective camouflage? The irregular red and black patterns may look like dappled sunshine and shade, though the insect in this picture was very obvious as it stood four square on a leaf.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

White-letter hairstreak larva and pupa

Another treat from Brighton recently was finding a caterpillar of a white-letter hairstreak, Satyrium w-album. It was on a plant of white dead-nettle, although its foodplant is elm. Presumably it had been blown out of its tree (Brighton is well-known for its elms).

After a day or two in pupated and the characteristic pattern of this particular butterfly species soon developed.

The white-letter hairstreak population nosedived following the devastation of Dutch elm disease, but has since recovered quite well and is now widespread in South East England. It is, however, a rather difficult butterfly to see as it usually skulks about in the treetops.

Biodiversity in Brighton

Recently, at the invitation of the Sussex Biodiversity Record Centre, I joined in a field trip to Preston Park in Brighton. Sussex recorders of the various groups have been having two of these trips each year, partly with the aim of filling some of the data gaps, and partly just to meet one another and learn more about the work that is done on the different groups. This was our first 'urban' outing.

The picture above shows some of the group scrutinising the flora and fauna around a small pond in the park's wildlife area.

We also covered two local wildlife-friendly gardens to see how these compared with the park. One of the plants we saw here was green alkanet, Pentaglottis sempervirens (see other picture) An enjoyable day and our thanks are due to Matthew Thomas, the city ecologist, who worked with the Record Centre's Penny Green on the detailed arrangements.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Twenty-plume moth (Alucita hexadactyla)

A little visitor to our windowpane last night was a twenty-plume moth, Alucita hexadactyla. This species is the only British member of the family Alucitidae. The adults are very long-lived, emerging in August before going into hibernation and reappearing in May and June.

The larvae live in the flowers of honeysuckle where they feed mainly on pollen and move from flower to flower.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Mother Shipton & Burnet Companion

On a recent walk under the transmission lines in our local woods, I came across two day-flying moths that are sometimes confused with the grizzled and dingy skipper butterflies.

One (top picture) was the brown and yellowish burnet companion, Euclydia glyphica, and the other a Mother Shipton, Callistege mi.

Mother Shipton was a wise woman who lived in Yorkshire in the 15th and 16th centuries. She was reputed to have "a nose of an incredible and unproportionate length" as in the pattern on the moth's forewings. The scientific name 'mi' is Latin for the Greek letter 'mu', supposedly evident on the hindwing, though I think one has to have a fairly strong imagination to pick it out.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Early bramble

One of the first brambles to flower in our area is a species described by the BSBI referee for this group as "probably a luxuriant form of Rubus nemorosus." (Brambles, though they generally look fairly similar, have been divided up by botanists into many microspecies).

Enjoying the pollen platform are a thick-legged flower beetle, Oedemera nobilis, a dance fly, Empis sp. and a moth which I think is a female Adela.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Beautiful but deadly

In a lane a mile or so from our house a plant of monk's-hood, Aconitum napellus, has been growing for at least 20 years. Clearly a survivor from the garden of a long demolished cottage, it battles its slender blue spikes of flower through the nettles and brambles in the overgrown hedge every year.

This species is not indigenous to Sussex and is rare even as a garden escape.

Monk's-hood is probably the most poisonous of all British vascular plants. Its juice was rubbed on externally as a pain killer and it had a wide range of other medicinal applications. Inevitably there are all sorts of folk tales surrounding a plant with as sinister a reputation as this.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Two burnets

Yesterday in urban Brighton I found the larvae of two different burnet moth species on two sites about 1km apart. The top one is almost certainly a six-spot burnet, Zygaena filipendulae (it is difficult as a larva to tell apart from the five-spot burnet, Z. trifolii). The lower one is the narrow-bordered five-spot burnet, Z. lonicerae. This is easily distinguished by the much longer hairs as well as by the body pattern.

Larvae of burnet moths accumulate the poisons contained in the vetches and other leguminous plants that they eat making them distasteful to predators. The day-flying moths have a characteristic red and black warning colouration.