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.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Windblown sawflies

On a walk in the area south of the Darwell Reservoir at Mountfield, I came across some strange bristly caterpillars resting on bramble leaves. After postings to the UK Moths Group and the Sawfly Group they have been identified as Perclista pubescens, a provisional Red Data Book species.

They feed on oak, not bramble, and must therefore have been blown down in the recent strong winds. I reflected that these winds must reduce the availability of caterpillars for hungry birds and, indeed, that many caterpillars will fail to make it back to their usual foodplant which could reduce the supply of insects next spring.

If global warming is making the weather more stormy ... I am sure you get my drift.

Monday, May 22, 2006

More ancient meadows

I was privileged today to be shown another 'ancient meadow' near Robertsbridge that had thousands of windswept spikes of green-winged orchids, Orchis morio. The purple patches in the middle picture are all these orchids. As the top picture shows, there were plenty of pink and white examples too.

Somewaht less obvious, but equally special in their own way as undisturbed grassland indicators were the adder's tongue ferns, Ophioglossum vulgatum, also present in considerable quantity.

Friday, May 19, 2006

The spring hawksbeard

On an abandoned allotment on the outskirts of Hastings, I came on a wonderful display of beaked hawksbeard, Crepis vesicaria. This is an introduced plant from the Mediterranean and south west Asia that was first recorded in Britain in 1713. It is now widespread in mainly the southern half of the British Isles.

Coming, as it does, between the dandelions and the yellow composites of mid to late summer, it is a useful source of pollen and nectar to early flying insects. The leaves have even found their way into salad (as have those of most plants of this ilk) in southern Europe but are very bitter.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006


Coralroot bittercress, Cardamine bulbifera, is in flower now. This is a scarce plant with a curiously disjuct distribution (see map here) and one of its strongholds in in the Weald of East Sussex and Kent. It is found in many of the woods between Bodiam and Robertsbridge and in one or two places in and around Hastings. A good site is in a small wood crossed by a public footpath off Bluemans Lane, Westfield (TQ796157) - on the north east side of the bend.

The plant grows in woodlands and beside shady streams and is up to 1 metre tall. It can make a fine sight among bluebells. Reproduction is normally by the small purple bulbils in the leaf axils as in the photo above.

Garden carpet

There was a garden carpet moth, Xanthorhoe fluctuata, resting on the back wall of the house this morning. This common moth, often found in gardens, has caterpillars that feed on cruciferous plants like cabbages, horseradish and wallflowers. I once grew some white alyssum as I had read that it was "good for butterflies". It was not, but all sorts of things ate it including larvae of the garden carpet.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Pond Wood in May

It was a warm, humid afternoon with the sun shing fitfully through grey golden cloud banks. On the slope to a small valley half a dozen fallow deer grazed one of their lawns, then pricked their ears as they picked up my sound and scent. Their lawn was full of flowers: blue bugle, mauve ground ivy, the last of the yellow primroses,but most of the sweet and succulent grasses had gone. One can see how grazing animals help to create herb rich swards in woodland glades by selective grazing.

There was much else to enjoy as the photos show. There were fronds of bracken galled by the Anthomyiid fly Chirosia grossicauda. A drinker moth larva on a bramble leaf: the name is becase these caterpillars are partial to drops of dew on the grass.

A malachite beetle, Malachius bipustulatus, posed for me on the male flower of pendulous sedge, Carex pendula.

And a long horn moth, Adela rufimitrella, settled down for the evening on a flowerof its foodplant, lady's smock, Cardamine pratensis

Pond Wood is in Brede and there is a footpath there, under the transmission lines at TQ806194.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Rust-eating midges

I noticed some large yellow blotches on the leaves of a lords-and-ladies plant, Arum maculatum, today and found they were evidence of a rust fungus, Puccinia sessilis, growing on the under surface. While looking at this under the microscope I noticed some tiny, red fly larvae browsing on the fungi. My friend Peter Chandler says these are almost certainly a species of Mycodiplosis, a Cecidomyid (gall midge) genus. I am going to try and breed some through to see if they can be named to specific level.

There is a delightful book on microfungi by Thomas Brittain published in 1882. Brittain refers to Puccinia sessilis as the wake-robin clustercup, Aecidium ari, and says it was quite rare in the area he covered in north west England and Wales.

'Wake-robin' used for arums is one of those old English terms that are still in wide use in North America but have largely died out here.

Brittain's book is on-line here.

Patio adder

Some neighbours phoned to say a small adder, Vipera berus, had ensconced itself under the sill of the door to their patio.

I went to have a look and it was, in fact, a young female. She did not look too pleased when we removed the decking in front of the sill, but we managed to manouevre her into a waste-paper basket and transport her to the wood edge at the end of the garden where she slithered rapidly away no worse for wear.

This is the first time an adder has been recorded from the immediate neighbourhood and I have certainly never seen one within a 2km radius since we moved here in 1971. One was also reliably recorded from the Pestalozzi Estate across the valley earlier this week and I wonder if they are increasing due to climate change, legal protection and other factors. Our neighbours, happily, were delighted to have such a venemous friend.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Ancient meadows

I was lucky enough yesterday to be able to walk part of a farm at Salehurst where there are still some ancient, unploughed meadows which give an idea of what many fields must have been like 100 years and more ago. The herb-rich turf was studded with daisies, buttercups and, best of all, green-winged orchids, Orchis morio (see above). These are permanent pastures and the cows seemed to be enjoying their colourful fields as much as I was.

This delightful orchid is now scarce in our area but we still have them in our churchyard in Sedlescombe (TQ777189) and there is usually a magnicent display towards the further end of Battle cemetery (TQ754159)

Marline blues

Some of the second emergence of butterflies were on the wing when I walked through the meadows of the Marline Valley Nature Reserve (TQ781122) to the east of Hastings yesterday. I put up a small heath from the long grass and found orange-tip eggs on the lady's smock plants in some of the wet flushes.

I also came across what I think is a not fully grown caterpillar of a common blue butterfly (see photo above) feeding on bird's-foot trefoil. I will have to raise it at home to be certain of its identity, but if it is not a common blue I cannot think what else it might be.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Pheasant's eye narcissi

One of my favourite introduced plants is the pheasant's-eye narcissus, Narcissus poeticus, from central Europe. I think it is because it is the last daffodil to flower (it is just coming out now) and has such a wonderful scent. There are plenty of look-alikes that flower earlier in the season, but nothing quite like the real pheasant's eye for quality.

There are scattered records of it growing as an escape across Sussex and there is a good clump in flower now on the north bank of Stream Lane, Sedlescombe at TQ770188. Those in the picture are in Sedlescombe churchyard.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Wild services leafing

The wild service, or chequer trees Sorbus torminalis are breaking into leaf now in the Rye Bay countryside. Though quite rare, there are some good groups of this species in our area: on the south east side of Queensway in St Leonards, for example at TQ784121. We also have the largest tree of this species in Britain, at Parsonage Farm, Udimore.

Most wild services failed to flower and fruit last year, but there are plenty of buds this year which should produce a bumper crop of berries. Sadly, under modern conditions, the seeds, though usually viable, normally fail to produce seedlings and this seems to be because of virtually 100% seed predation. The tree is often considered to be an ancient woodland or hedgerow indicator.

The leaves have a characteristic shape and the 17th century herbalist John Parkinson described them as having "a sad greene colour".

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Bluebell time

The areas of Brede High Woods that were coppiced two years or so ago have now just about reached their best so far as bluebells are concerned. This is a good example of chestnut coppice with standard oaks, a traditional pattern of woodland management that favoured a great variety of wildlife. Many English woods like this are now relatively dull conifer plantations.

As well as their extrordinary depth of colour bluebells cast a wonderful hyacinth-like perfume on the air.