Saturday, November 02, 2013

Brimstones & buckthorn leaves

I have often wondered at the striking resemblance between the fading , autumnal leaves of alder buckthorn (the food plant of the brimstone butterfly in our area) and the yellow of the butterfly itself.  Even the antennae of the insect are the shape and colour of the buckthorn leaf stalks.

2013-10-30 12.32.54 Brimstone

2013-10-30 14.04.49

I have wondered because brimstones do not seem to be on the wing when the buckthorns are turning yellow, but on 30 October I saw the fine fresh male above fluttering around a bramble patch in nearby Brede High Woods.  This is the latest I can remember seeing an adult on the wing though, according to the literature they have often been recorded in mild weather into early November.

The male I saw was in that part of the woods where alder buckthorn reaches its greatest abundance, and these butterflies are common here in spring.  My interpretation of this late October event is that the male was looking for somewhere to hibernate (bramble patches are a frequent choice) but was positioning himself near the buckthorns that would attract the females after hibernation in spring.  The butterfly I saw was visible from a long way off, but I think I would have been hard put to it to spot him if he had chosen to settle in a buckthorn like the one below.

2013-10-30 12.50.47

On this principle I suppose one of the butterflies settled among the buckthorns in spring or summer might be thought to be an unseasonal dead leaf.

On a slightly different point, I wonder why the females are paler than the males.  Does this dimorphism convey some evolutionary advantage?

Saturday, September 28, 2013

The arrival of autumn, 2013

There have been many interesting moments after the last few weeks as summer has given way to an Indian summer.

In the sunshine the ivy flowers in our garden hedge has proved a great attraction to insects and I have seen more hornets here than anywhere else this year.

2013-09-24 12.47.06

A welcome addition to the usual visitors was the ivy bee, Colletes hederae.  This was first recorded in Britain in Dorset in 2001 and is spreading rapidly northwards.  It is one of the latest solitary bees on the wing, its emergence coinciding with the ivy flowers that it normally visits.

2013-09-24 Colletes hederae

Another pleasant surprise was the discovery of a huge colony of autumn lady's tresses orchid, Spiranthes spiralis in a front garden in Sedlescombe village.  The small white spikes are the orchids.

2013-09-26 11.30.23

An extraordinary sight was that of a spider-hunting wasp. an Anoplius (probably A. nigerrimus) hauling a paralysed wolf spider (Trochosa sp.) up the curtains in our living room.  These wasps normally nest at or near ground level and it is not clear precisely where this one was going with its victim.

2013-09-26 Anoplius & spider

Another surprise was the discover of a tiny barkfly halfway down our garden that turned out to be a fairly recent British arrival - Trichopsocus brincki.  This was discovered in Madeira in 1957 and, for a while, was thought to be an endemic species there.  However, one turned up in South Devon in 2003 and it now seems to be fairly widespread in Britain.  The pattern near the front edge of the forewings make it unmistakable.  It was named after Professor Per Brinck, a Scandinavian entomologist who did much work in Madeira.

2013-09-26 22.23.27

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Moths and crickets

A beautiful, freshly emerged light emerald moth (Campaea margaritata) was resting on the spiders webs on the north wall if our shed yesterday.

2013-09-10 16.59.43

2013-09-10 17.09.48

Later, coming indoors after dark, I spotted an oak bush cricket (Meconema thalassinum) on our back door and took a flash picture:

2013-09-11 00.22.48

Monday, July 29, 2013

Campion moth caterpillar

The other day I found a caterpillar of a campion moth (Hadena rivularis) nestling comfortably in the opened seed pod of, guess what, a red campion (Silene dioica).

I kept if for a day or two so that I could get a photo of it stretched out.

After our studio session had finished I gathered some fresh campion leaves and pods and the caterpillar immediately 'got its head down' as they say (see below).  It is now, of course, too big to fit completely into the pods as it did when I first found it.




Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Just a few moths

Moths seem to be even scarcer this year than before.  In a wonderful, still, heatwave dusk I walked round the garden and saw no moths at all.  It is now rare to find them on our windows after dark whereas 30 or 40 years ago one could expect to see a great variety of species here.

As well as moths, many other insects seem to be down in number.  Our first hogweeds are out, but are hardly jostling with species as they used to be and honey bees are very few, though the recently arrived in Britain Bombus hypnorum, the tree bee, has had a good season and must have done much of the pollinating that is usually the province of the honey bee.

One of the few moths I have seen round the house is the small dusty wave (Idaea seriata), kindly identified by one of the experts on iSpot.

While yesterday a spotted a micro under a leaf (difficult to photograph) that turned out to be the Oecophorid Esperia oliviella.

Often caterpillars seem easier to find than adults.  On the corner by the lane there is a hogweed almost completely eaten to pieces by larvae of the parsnip moth (Depressaria pastinacella).  They seem almost to have created their own problems by being too many for the food supply.

Moths may be doing poorly, but butterflies seem to be managing quite well.  Meadow browns are abundant and I have seen virtually all the species I would have expected to see by this time of the year.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Wonderful English hedges

For the last week or two our local hedgerows have been at their best.  With, in places, masses of wild roses, honeysuckle and elder much now giving way to bramble flowers.

Summer flowers and grasses flourish along the hedge bottoms.  One of the most characteristic grasses is false oat-grass (Arrhenatherum elatius) with its elegantly arching silvery flowering spikes.

Another silver surprise was a blackthorn (below) with silver leaves rather than the normal green as on the right of the picture.  This is, I believe, a condition known as 'false silver-leaf'.  Leaves also turn silver if the shrub is attacked by a fungus Chondrostereum purpureum but this kills the plant or the affected branches and this particular blackthorn seems perfectly healthy (although the false silver-leaf is caused by one kind of stress of another).

Hedge woundwort also seems to be doing well this year.

Anne Pratt (1852) remarks on the wooly properties of the plant and adds "one species of wild bee, which dwells in the cavities of trees, is skilled in using it.  Kirby and Spence remark of this little creature, that it knew what materials would slowly conduct heat, long before Count Rumford's experiments had been made; and it attacks the leaves of Wooly Woundwort (Stachys lanata), the Rose Campion and similar plants, and scraping hence the down with its forelegs, rolls it into a little ball, and sticking it on the plaister which covers the cells, renders them impervious to every change of temperature; so that, say these writers, 'this bee may be said to exercise the trade of a clothier.' "

The bee in question is the wool carder-bee (Anthidium manicatum) and is particularly common in our garden where it shows a strong liking for flowers of houseleeks (Sempervivum spp.)

20110731 South View Sempervivum 013

With us it mainly uses Stachys lanata to make its wool balls (see below).

The Count Rumford mentioned by Anne Pratt was the 18th/19th C  Anglo-American polymath born Benjamin Thompson.  Among innumerable other things he investigated the insulating properties of various materials including fur, wool and feathers.  Kirby and Spence were authors of the Introduction to Entomology published in 4 volumes between 1815 and 1826.

Another insect that is a welcome visitor to our hedges this year is the small tortoiseshell butterfly (Aglais urticae).  It used to be one of the commonest species when I was young, but now seems to be rather rarely seen, though it may have been picking up a little recently.  I hope it isn't its relative scarcity that causes me to appreciate what a beautiful species it is.

A light in the dark

Yesterday night I spotted a glowworm doing its stuff on the lawn in our garden.

I told my wife and she said "Oh do go and take a photo of it".  So I did, and here it is:

Tuesday, July 02, 2013

In Killingan Wood

On my way home I noticed, in the woodland edge, a beautiful red filigree of herb robert (Geranium robertianum) leaves.  The plant had, I supposed, finished its flowering and was turning colour as a final flourish as the seeds set. 

Back home I scrutinised the picture and discovered; not counting the grass and the dead oak leaf; field maple, ivy, hornbeam, bramble, yew, field rose, cherry laurel (an invasive alien) and hazel plus a couple of plants of whose identity I am uncertain, all sharing the moment.  A good example of how nature is both dynamic and intricate.

Along the same path the wood melick grass (Melica uniflora) has already gone to seed.

It is regarded as an ancient woodland indicator plant, though I always find it on the banks on the edges of the woods and, although it looks as though (like floating sweet grass) it might have harvestable seeds, I can find no evidence of any such use.  In the 1799 Letters and Papers on Agriculture, Planting &c, it is called 'wood honey-grass' and the anonymous author says of it This grass has beauty, and that only, to recommend it, unless to linnets, which are fond of the seed, which ripens in good time for them, being a very early grass.  It was said to occur at Prior Park, presumably the one near Bath designed by Alexander Pope and Capability Brown and probably still does since it is a common enough grass.

The linnet is one of the many birds that have declined alarmingly in recent times and they do need a good supply of seed year round so, as an early seeder, one can see how wood melick would have been sought by them.

Although we have not had much of a summer, the pond in Killingan Wood is already reduced to mud and remains a good, fish-free habitat for some of the wildlife that prefers temporary water bodies.

Monday, July 01, 2013

On bees and things

There has been much in the media recently on the decline of honey bees and the lack of insects generally in Britain.

This does seem borne out by my own experiences.  I have yet to see a honey bee in 2013, despite looking for them but two species of bumble bee have been doing well in our East Sussex garden

We have a nest of the tree bee, Bombus hypnorum, in the wall at the back of our house.  The plant that seems to exert a powerful attraction for them is the alder buck thorn, Frangula alnus, although it has tiny greenish, scentless flowers.

The whole of our bush trembles with them, but they do not seem very interested in larger, more colourful flowers. 

The tree bee is a relatively new species in Britain.  Having first been recorded in Wiltshire in 2001, it has now spread far and wide and seems quite untroubled by whatever it is that is bothering the honey been and many other insects.

A self-sown and small flowered cotoneaster is another plant they like and on this they are joined in smaller numbers by the early bumble bee, Bombus pratorum.

In the wider countryside there are some lovely flowering meadows like Jackson Pollock paintings.

They do have insects in them, but not nearly so many as one would expect given the quantity of flowering plants.  In this afternoon's warmth I was looking at a patch of white clover, Trifolium repens, a flower normally very attractive to bees and other insects, but there was no sign of any visitors.

Butterflies generally are scarce, but I have seen most of the species I would expect to see during the year so far, albeit in much lower numbers than usual.  Meadow browns, Maniola jurtina, have just appeared and are usually common by now, but I only saw two this afternoon while walking through what appeared to be an ideal meadowland habitat.

Sunday, June 02, 2013

A garden bioblitz

Today and tomorrow are scheduled for a national British event called the Garden BioBlitz organised by a mixture of volunteer wildlife experts and enthusiasts with help from all over the place. See:

I spent a few hours revisiting the wildlife in the top half of our garden (so as to keep all records within the TQ782188 grid square) and submitted almost 150 records, something that rather understates the biodiversity of our home plot.

I took various photographs on my rounds and I think this first one sums up how rich a garden can be.

IMG_1877aThe dunnock is perching on a log in my window box project.  Recently an attractive short-palped cranefly, Epiphragma ocellare, has been emerging from this decaying log.

20130515 WBX Epiphragma 06Other plants in the photo in and around the window box include goat willow, grey sallow, white clover, bramble, common hawthorn, tutsan, hairy tare, herb-robert, soft rush and goosegrass.

Elsewhere I saw a red-headed cardinal beetle (the 'sun' is a buttercup), here just about to launch into flight.

IMG_1864and a brown mint beetle, Chrysolina staphylea, curiously close to our burgeoning colony of deliciously aromatic Bowles's mint.

IMG_1876 Although the mushroom season seems far away, there is a fairy ring of St. George's mushrooms in a grassy place halfway down the garden.  We ate some the other day in the Spanish/Basque dish revuelto de perretxikos (perretxikoa is Basque for 'mushroom' in case you did not know that dear reader).

IMG_1878Just before I had to finish recording I came across a mating pair of the cranefly Tipula varipennis

IMG_1887There is still much to enjoy in a small patch of Wealden garden

Friday, May 17, 2013

Royal purple?

In my small Native Sussex Fernery outside our kitchen window the fronds of the royal fern, Osmunda regalis, are climbing rapidly.  The taller ones rather remind me of Henry Moore's famous sculptures of Three Standing Figures.

These shoots are edible and were/are an ingredient in namul a dish of steamed vegetables used in the cuisine of the Korean royal court.  In Japan they are called zenmai.  In the interests of gastronomy I boiled a stalk with head for 5 minutes in water with bicarbonate of soda (it turned the water pale mauve), then rinsed it and ate it.  It was very bland with a faint nutty taste, but not unpleasant.  A good vehicle for oriental seasonings maybe.

As the picture shows they are a distinctive purple colour.  The name 'royal' is said to derive from the imposing size of the fern when fully mature, though mine are not that impressive, so I wonder if the name comes from the colour of these young stems.  Purple has long been associated with royalty.  On the other hand, as my plant came from a local nursery stall, it may be that I have the form 'purpurescens', though the leaves when expanded are plain green.


Friday, May 03, 2013

Brimstone returns

In the late morning sunshine a female brimstone (I like to think of it as the female brimstone) came hopping back over the hedge to lay more eggs on our buckthorn bush.

20130503 SV female brimstone

After a while she settled on the ground for a rest, tilting over on one side so that she was not very obvious despite her colour.

Later she returned to egg laying in the buckthorn bush until chased away by an irritable-looking blue tit.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Red-dead nettle, Lamium purpureum

This little flowering plant, so often described as a weed, is currently brightening the ground by the north east corner of our house.


On close inspection the flowers are quite intricate and look like some alien babies with furry hoods and butterfly skirts flying above the maroon-flushed leaves.


Apparently a decoction from the roots was used in County Meath, Ireland "to bring out the rash in measles", something that I thought happened in the normal course of events.  Despite the current measles epidemic, I hope people aren't rushing for the red-dead nettle roots.

Even more remarkable is a comment in Medicinal Plants in Folk Tradition (Allen & Hatfield, 2004) which I feel needs no further comment: "An infusion of Lamium purpureum, in a quart of wine, has been drunk in Essex as a treatment for piles."

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Lichens and an egg

In a wild part of St Leonards on Sea (sic), I found a dense belt of blackthorn with a post and rail fence running through.  For reasons that were not entirely clear, the branches on one side of the fence were festooned with lichens among the flower buds, while those on the other side had none, not even the smallest amount.

20130418 Mayfield J blackthorn & lichen(8)

I think the phenomenon may have had something to do with the age of the bushes, though there did not appear to be that much difference.

In the garden this afternoon, a female brimstone butterfly located our coppiced alder buckthorn bush and I watched her as she spent several minutes seeking out the twigs she favoured and laying a solitary egg just on or under a leaf bud.

20130425 SV brimstone egg

This is  the only alder buckthorn I know of within a radius of at least a mile (though I may have overlooked some) and I will always marvel at the unerring ability the females have in finding the plants.

Monday, April 01, 2013

More spring than winter

Although it is still very cold, with a biting wind from the east, the sun shone for most of the day and in the garden at long last it felt more like spring than winter.

We have primroses and daffodils out but a very welcome newcomer was a daisy on the lawn opening its petals wide to the sunshine

As Shelley said in his poem The Question:

I dream'd that, as I wander'd by the way,
Bare Winter suddenly was changed to Spring

And later:

Daisies, those pearl'd Arcturi of the earth,
The constellated flower that never sets


'Arcturi' refers to stars, presumably in the region of Arcturus.   The reference to it never setting means, I think, that daisies are nearly always in flower not that the petals do not close up at night.

Chaucer was also a great fan of daisies:

But I am up and walking in the mead
To see this flower against the sunshine spread.
When it upriseth early by the morrow :
That blissful sight doth soften all my sorrow

As well as daisies there were one or two insects about including this fly on our back wall.  Not sure of the identity, but possibly an Egle species, an Anthomiid associated with sallow blossom.


Thursday, March 28, 2013

Some winter thoughts

After the very wet autumn and early winter we entered a period of cold, dull weather, punctuated by rain and snow that seemed to go on forever and ever. As I write on Maundy Thursday the temperature has not exceeded 15⁰C since 24 October last year and there have only been 30 days rising to between 10 ⁰C and 15 ⁰ C. At night lowest temperatures seem to hover between -2⁰C and +2⁰C. There was heavy, drifting snow between 11 and 14 March and snow flurries on many days including today.

The problem is a huge anticyclone that delivers modest to strong winds from the east so that the wind-chill factor makes it seem much colder than the thermometer reading. Tonight a low of -1 ⁰C is forecast but the wind-chill will take it down to -4 ⁰C. According to the forecast the whole of April is likely to remain cold. The warmer, Atlantic weather lies to the south and, so the meteorologists say, the jet stream would normally have moved up to the north of Britain by this time of year allowing the milder westerly winds to move in. This may be a natural variation or something to do with the climate change phenomena of a warming ocean or more ice-free water in the Arctic.

BHW primroses

The countryside is variously affected. Spring flowers are coming out slowly and primroses are doing quite well, hazel catkins have struggled through and wood anemones are starting, but I have not seen any sallow blossom. The cherry-plums, Prunus cerasifera, are blooming well around Hurst Lane with their delicate white flowers coming maybe a week or so later than normal. However, the grass in the fields is not growing and insects are virtually absent which will be bad news for birds, some of which have already died of cold and hunger and must be particularly stressed if they have started nesting. An absence of early spring moths could mean a dearth of caterpillars just when the young birds need them and I wonder what might be happening to migrant species heading north from Africa. At least, on 5 March when the temperature topped 13 ⁰ C, I saw a fine male brimstone butterfly enjoying the sunshine at the corner of our local Churchland Lane and Killingan Wood.

Farming and gardening are also affected and, apart from poor sowing and growing conditions, there is no pleasure in pottering around the home plot. If I go outside, by the time I have written down the temperature, fed the birds and had a quick look at the houseleeks and other potted plants, it is time to head indoors. And, of course, it is not just Britain that is suffering. Much of Europe has been seriously affected and I have read that Russia is experiencing its coldest winter since 1938, the year I was born.

The seemingly endless cold, grey and windy weather is quite depressing and, with rising energy prices, expensive. We are currently using between £6 and £9 per day on electricity heating just one room and have a log fire most evenings, but even indoors I still have to have five or six layers of clothing on my upper body and thermal long johns and fur lined boots to keep warm.

The media tell us about records being broken and, apparently, it is the coldest winter since 1962/63 but the worst aspect is that it seems to go on and on in an unvarying way as though it is completely stuck with no intervening periods of warmth and sunshine as harbingers of better times. Very cold winters in the past have, in my experience, differed from this one with some nights of extreme cold bringing averages down. We have had nothing like the low temperatures down to -20 ⁰C that I have recorded here or at Robertsbridge in the past.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Casualty of winter

I fear the cold is taking its toll of some of our wildlife.

This afternoon I found this small, huddled corpse of a hedge sparrow in the log pile on the back wall of our house.  It must have crept in among the wood overnight, but the frost was just too much for it especially as it might have been weakened by hunger.

20130314 dead hedge sparrow

Tomorrow morning it will be gone: a tasty snack for a fox or badger.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Snow returns

Since 11th March we have had arctic weather, with snow, frost and fierce winds from the east and north.  Today it is melting quite quickly, though it is far from warm, making the drifts show up along the hedges and picking out shallow furrows across the fields with green parallels.

20130313 Snow view Churchland Fields

The animals and birds, some of which have already started nesting, are having a hard time and one of our garden wild rabbits climbed into a bush to browse on the rather unappetising looking shoots of a Coprosma from New Zealand.

20130312 snow rabbit

The squirrels seemed relatively untroubled and carried on scampering about and  twitching their snow sprinkled tails.

20130312 snow squirrel