Saturday, March 31, 2012

A Swarm of Beekeepers.....

When we were in Newcastle today we came across this group of beekeepers learning their trade underneath Byker bridge at the Ouseburn Farm.

The growth of beekeeping is apparently one of the factors that led to Newcastle being voted Britain's Greenest City and the city council even has a web site devoted to beekeeping and bee conservation, here

Urban beekeeping is a fast-growing hobby and has several dedicated websites - e.g. here and here and there's an article to read with a lot more links here

Friday, March 30, 2012

Snake's Head

Snake's Head Fritillaria meleagris is described in most floras as being 'doubtfully native' in Britain and because it's so commonly planted it's difficult to be sure whether plants within its supposedly 'natural' range, in the Thames Valley, are 'wild' plants. It's been seeding itself around my garden in Durham ever since I first planted it, about 20 years ago, and this year's crop of flowers have been opening earlier than usual during the current heatwave, attracting numerous bumblebees that visit the flowers for nectar. This is the bee's-eye view of the nodding flower, showing ripe stamens and a stigma with three lobes curling backwards, ready to receive pollen from a visiting bee.

For some more exotic Fritillaria species, click here

Thursday, March 29, 2012

What happened Next......?

I've been watching this female blackbird in the garden for several days, while she has been collecting nest material and building her nest in the ivy at the bottom of the garden. Now she's finished and yesterday evening I watched her preening and foraging for food in the brief period before egg laying and incubation begins. While she was perched on the fence a wasp became caught in a spider's web within easy reach and the blackbird's attention immediately locked on to the frantically buzzing insect. I could almost hear her thinking 'should I eat it?'.

I've no idea what would happen if a blackbird tried to swallow as wasp. On a couple of occasions I've seen frogs swallow wasps that have landed on the pond surface for a drink. On both of those occasions the frog looked a bit pensive as the wasp went down its digestive tract but neither frog made any attempt to spit it out, or appeared to suffer any visible ill effects. They just settled back with their eyes level with the water surface and waited for something else edible to cross their field of vision.

The blackbird hesitated for a few seconds - maybe that warning colouration really does work - and during that time the wasp managed to struggle free and got away. So I still don't know what would happen next if a blackbird swallows a wasp.

For another potential life-and-death encounter with an unresolved outcome click here

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Crow Twig Juggling ...

The willow-leaved (or weeping) pear tree Pyrus salicifolia in our garden has received its annual pruning this week by crows that use its long, pliable twigs as nest material - but each new generation of crows has to learn how to break them off and carry them away. Crows that are new to the game grip the twigs mid-way along their length and simply try to pull them off - which never works because the twigs are tough and very flexible.  But after a few attempts they soon learn that if they grip the twig near its attachment to a larger branch and then use their powerful beaks to bend it sideways it will snap, because the thickened basal end is more brittle. Then a few more hacking blows with that beak and a bit more tugging will usually remove the prize...... 

...... but then they're left holding one end of a long twig, which makes the flight back to the nest very awkward ....

... so they develop a technique of bouncing on the twigs, flapping their wings and tossing their heads to shift their grip towards the middle of the twig. Beginners at this game drop a few before they perfect their technique but after a few attempts ....

...... they become very proficient and shift their grip until .....

.... they have a perfectly balanced and aerodynamically stable load.

Smart birds, crows...

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Ladybird Spotting

A lot of bloggers have reported unusually large numbers of seven-spot ladybirds emerging after overwintering successfully and I don't think I've ever seen so many in my garden here in Co. Durham - even in high summer. It's certainly not a local phenomenon and when I had a look around a tiny back garden in Cleethorpes, in Lincolnshire, today I counted upwards of 20 on a single aphid-infested Euphorbia characias shrub .... plus an unusual interloper in their midst ..

... in the form of this beautifully marked eyed ladybird. 

These are usually associated with conifers but when I looked around I couldn't see any conifers in this garden or any of the adjoining ones - so it must have been an accidental arrival, carried in from some distance away on the wind. Lovely little ladybird, though ...

Monday, March 26, 2012

The First Priority for a Dung Fly in Spring...

Once spring arrives in a seasonal climate the priorities for animals are  straightforward: feeding and breeding. These two dung flies (Scatophaga stercoraria), which were amongst hundreds on willow catkins in Teesdale this morning, are managing to combine both activities. Next stop dung, to lay some eggs. Scatophaga literally means 'dung eater' and is slightly misleading, since only the larvae feed on dung. The adults are voracious predators of other flies, catching them using their  hairy front pair of legs, which grasp their prey like the legs of a preying mantid; males capture females for mating in much the same way

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Overheating Blackbird

There's frantic nest building activity all around our back garden. So far I've found two blackbird nests, as well as nests of a robin, wren, hedge sparrow, collared dove and wood pigeon in various stages of construction. This female blackbird spent the whole morning shuttling backwards and forwards with nest material and then, at around 2pm. when the afternoon was at its hottest ....

..... give seemed to give up out of sheer exhaustion. She spent the next half hour apparently in a trance, with her feathers fluffed up, beak open and panting heavily. During that time a sparrowhawk flew low overhead without spotting her - one lucky blackbird!

Friday, March 23, 2012

New Neighbours.......

This lovey-dovey pair of collared doves have built a nest in a hawthorn tree just five metres from our bedroom window,

This offers an excellent opportunity to watch their nest-building skills, which are rudimentary - just a few twigs heaped together in the branches of the tree, which the female just sits on and turns around in a circle a few times, to flatten them with her breast feathers, then a few minor adjustments with her beak and that's it. Not one of nature's construction masterpieces..... but it seems to suffice, judging by the remarkable breeding success of these attractive birds.

Watching this pair raise a family is going to be interesting (and a little nerve-racking, as there are magpies nesting at the bottom of the garden). So far their incessant soporific call  is a novelty; I'm not sure how I'll feel about it after a week or two when I've been woken up by it at dawn every morning ......

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Bolt from the blue..........

A poor quality image but an interesting angle. This kestrel was one of a pair in a tree near the cliffs south of Seaham in Co. Durham ....... and when I got too close it headed straight for me before racing off over the trees.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Dead, but still looking good....

These carline thistles Carlina vulgaris flowered last summer but their papery seed heads survive the winter and still look decorative in spring. Photographed yesterday on the cliffs south of Seaham in Co.Durham, along with...

..... blackthorn coming into bloom ....

..... dog's mercury ......

.... some magnificent, coconut-scented gorse blossom ...

..... stinking hellebore Helleborus foetidus, almost certainly a garden escape .....

..... along with some irrepressible daffodils, struggling to flower through a tangle of last year's bramble stems

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Wildlife Viewed Through Beer Goggles: 4 North Pennine Upland Ornithology in Spring

I'm still dutifully pursuing my research on wildlife-themed beers so, with today being the day of the vernal equinox, here are three that celebrate spring arriving in the Pennine uplands, starting with the admirable golden plover golden ale. Notice that the bird on the label is legless - is this a subliminal marketing message?

Golden plover have been back on their nesting grounds on Chapel Fell in Weardale for a couple of weeks, where you more often hear their mournful cries rather than see them. A walk on the fell in low cloud at this time of year is a spooky experience, with the birds' calls (listen here) coming at you from all directions out of the mist.  

These are part of a flock feeding in fields near Corbridge about a month ago, at a time when they were just beginning to develop their breeding plumage. They're very cautious birds and I've never had much luck photographing them, so .....

.... most of my pictures tend to be of this sort.

I don't think there is a more evocative sound on moorland than that of curlews during their courtship flights - long, slow glides trailing their bubbling calls (listen to recordings here). They've been back in Weardale for at least a couple of weeks too.

That wonderful sound is made in the bird's throat and in this picture you can see just how large a curlew's throat is when it opens its beak fully - it's really a feathered musical instrument.

And finally, black grouse porter. Strange gurgling calls, aggression, ridiculously plumaged - a description that could refer equally to Friday night beer-fuelled revellers in the Bigg Market in Newcastle and to this magnificent game bird, that I still haven't managed to record in a  decent photo ...... something that I hope to rectify when the lekking season begins again at Langdon Beck in Teesdale

Listen to a selection of sound recordings here.

Monday, March 19, 2012

The Seaweed Collector

Last week's visit to the Yorkshire coast fired my enthusiasm for the forthcoming rock-pooling season. These days, with motorised transport, a trip to the coast by motor vehicle is easy but it was the coming of the railways in Victorian Britain that made the pleasures of the seashore accessible to the majority of the population. That in turn triggered the publication of a host of seashore guides, advising visitors on what to look for in rock pools. 

This charming book, The Seaweed Collector by Shirley Hibberd, is a classic example. Then, as now, visitors to the seaside wanted to bring home a souvenir of their experiences of the wonders of the deep, as well as simply enjoying their day out; a pressed seaweed had considerable aesthetic appeal and was likely to be less smelly then a decaying winkle. 

Hibberd's book is full of information on collecting and identifying seaweeds and also includes some helpful sartorial advice for the would-be seashore naturalist: "To be suitably dressed is one of the most important matters in setting forth to gather seaweeds" declared the author. "Above all things it is desirable to protect the feet with stout boots, the so-called seaside boots of canvas or white leather being quite unsuitable for clambering over boulders to find rock-pools, or for wading in the marshy parts of a sandy shore where fresh water streams come down. Serviceable woollen garments that fit somewhat close are to be preferred to fashionable “fly away” things which the wind will sport with unkindly, and which are sure to get well wetted when you begin to stoop and “potter” about. A stout stick is a good friend, or, if that not be genteel enough, a strong umbrella on which you can lean as a stick, and the hooked handle of which may be serviceable to catch something the hand cannot possibly reach. I took a lesson from an old ratcatcher in my employ, who always went about the garden with a stout stick tipped with a broad chisel-like point. This he used for probing into holes and crannies when determining the “run” of a rat. With a heavy stick of this sort I have secured many a specimen with a sharp thrust that I must have laboured hard for on my knees with hammer and chisel, at the risk, perhaps, of a too intimate acquaintance with the rock-pool in which it grew".
Shirley Hibberd. The Seaweed Collector: A Handy Guide to the Marine Botanist. Groombridge and Son, London. 1872.

Shirley Hibberd, incidentally, was a man - James Shirley Hibberd (1825-1890). He was a very successful horticultural writer, author and editor of gardening magazines including Amateur Gardening, which is still published today.

It's easy to understand the urge to preserve seaweeds which, even at this time of year when they are in the early stages of spring growth, can be very attractive objects. Pressing them was the method favoured by Hibberd and by seaweed collectors ever since. The technique is simple: (1) Wash away all traces of animal marine life from the specimen with clean water (you might be amazed how much microscopic animal life lives amongst those fronds - see here and here, for example); (2) float the seaweed in a bowl of water above a submerged sheet of paper then raise the paper, teasing out the seaweed fronds as you go;(3) cover with a layer of muslin; (4) press between layers of newspaper until dry, when - with luck - you'll find that the natural agar in the seaweed will have stuck it to the paper. You can find a detailed on-line guide to seaweed pressing here.

I first became acquainted with the technique when I went on a school field club expedition to the Isle of Wight, in 1962. Here I am (in the middle) with a group of school mates, with an overambitious candidate for pressing - what looks like a very large specimen of kelp Laminaria saccharina.

 Amazingly, half a century later, I still have some of the specimens that we pressed when we took them back to our Youth Hostel at Whitwell  (I'm an inveterate hoarder of natural history artefacts). This one has lost its original label and it has faded but I think it's dulse Rhodymenia palmata

 Preserved between the pages of a book, this sea lettuce, Ulva lactuca has retained its colour remarkably well.

 Caragheen Chondrus crispus.

Podweed Halydris siliquosa.

It's inevitable that pressed specimens scarcely do justice to the beauty and delicacy of seaweeds swaying in a rock pool, so the outcome of pressing is always a bit disappointing. 

In Victorian times people produced albums of their pressed seaweeds collected on trips to the seaside and occasionally these turn up in antiquarian bookshops, although they are seldom well preserved unless they have been kept in very dry conditions in the proverbial cool, dark place. .... but in the middle of the 19th. century someone had already developed an excellent method of preserving the beauty of seaweeds for posterity.........

The technique was called Nature Printing and involved making impressions of specimens that had been dipped in ink. The process was developed and refined by an Austrian called Alois Auer and an English printer called Henry Bradbury went to Vienna to learn his techniques.

These involved placing the specimen between soft lead and hard steel plates which were pressed together, leaving an imprint of the specimen on the lead sheet which was then inked and used as a printing plate.

Using this technique Bradbury produced exquisite illustrations for natural history books, notably on ferns and seaweeds, which are masterpieces of his craft. The Nature Printed British Seaweeds by W.G. Johnstone and A. Croall, published in four volumes in 1859, contains detailed accounts of all the known seaweeds around the British Isles illustrated with exquisite nature printed images of each.

The images of the seaweeds were nature-printed on the lead plates which were then separately engraved with microscopic identification features, so the completion of these volumes was a major task.

The printed images are as highly detailed and as fresh today as on the day they were printed, unlike real pressed seaweeds which inevitably decay.

The most successful images are those of the delicate red and green seaweeds, which responded particularly well to the nature printing process.

There is still a thriving Nature Printing Society - check out their web page at

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Spring quite literally springing....

It's easy to overlook liverworts. These simple plants were the first to colonise the land and have been around for over 500 million years so in terms of durability, having survived five major mass extinction that wiped out many other life forms, they are unequalled in the plant kingdom. For most of the year they are pretty dull - just a mass of ground-hugging lobed green thalli confined to permanently damp places like the banks of ditches.  But for a few weeks in spring they do something rather extraordinary.

In late winter the surface of a liverwort thallus is a hot-bed of sexual activity. Embedded in the thallus are microscopic pits that release thousands of tiny male cells that swim across wet surfaces using their whirling flagellae. They're heading towards microscopic female structures called archegonia that contain an egg cell and are located under the edge of the thallus. Once fertilisation is achieved a spore capsule forms, like a small dark bead on the surface of the thallus, and when it's ripe the spore capsule stalk begins to elongate - very rapidly.

The images here are of the thalloid liverwort Pellia epiphylla and in the top image you can see a couple of spore capsules with their stalks just beginning to elongate.

After a few hours the stalk (seta) is clearly visible and from this point it elongates very rapidly ..

... so after about a day the whole structure is a couple of inches tall and resembles a match with a glassy stalk.

Then the capsule wall splits open into four segments and the contents literally explode, when elongated, compressed cells called elaters act like springs and hurl the spores into the airstream. You can see the process in more detail and in action by clicking here..... or if you collect some Pellia from the banks of a ditch (woodlands are a good place to look for it) you can watch the whole sequence for yourself.

Simple, primitive but very effective, it has served liverworts well for half a billion years.

There's a nice time lapse sequence of elongating spore capsules of another genus  here.