Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Tandem dragonflies

We spent a fascinating afternoon recently watching dragonfly behaviour at Ashes quarry at Stanhope in Weardale.

The most numerous dragonflies in the shallow, moss-edged pools there are common darters, Sympetrum striolatum. We watched them on their egg-laying flights, where the male tows the female around, attached by the tip of his abdomen to a point just behind her head.

Coupling up like this is the male's way of defending the female he has inseminated, preventing rival males from mating with her and displacing his sperm.

It's an unwieldy arrangement. At frequent intervals the male lowers his abdomen, forcing the female down to the water surface where she drops fertilised eggs from the tip of her abdomen.

That's an awkward manoeuvre, when the male momentarily hovers in this vertical position.

The males are fiercely defensive of their territory, often perching on a favourite stone or ....

... plant stem, ready to drive off rivals and pursue any passing female.

The second commonest dragonflies at this site are black darters Sympetrum danae. There seemed to be quite a lot of interspecific aggro - we watched several aerial battles between the two species.

These dragonflies land with their wings outstretched but ....

... finally come to rest with them in this swept-forward configuration.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Crow v. Sparrowhawk

A couple of days ago we watched this aerial dogfight between a crow and a sparrowhawk near Wolsingham in Weardale.

The sparrowhawk was just cruising along, minding its own business, when the crow dived down on it, missed, soared upward ...

... turned sharply and then had another go.

The hawk veered away ....

... then the crow tried again, this time from below, while ....

... the sparrowhawk looked down to keep an eye on its pursuer ....

... before diving down on the crow as it overshot its target ...

After that the crow kept a respectful distance before ....

... they both went their separate ways

Friday, September 25, 2015

Wildlife viewed through beer goggles: 6. Is this the world's first moss-themed beer?

Still in pursuit of wildlife-themed beers (click here for earlier examples), here's a complete novelty. I suspect that this must be the world's first moss-themed beer.

Old Sphagnum has been brewed by the Allendale Brewery to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Peatland Restoration Scheme by the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty Partnership.

This is Sphagnum, the wonderful moss that grows from the top, dies from below and produced deep peat deposits that - amongst other attributes - lock away atmospheric carbon.

And here, high in the North Pennines in Weardale, is a peaty pool, partially full of Sphagnum, that is a superb habitat for all sorts of wildlife.

Sphagnum absorbs water like a sponge, thanks to these highly specialised leaves that are formed by a network of living cells separated by dead, empty cells that hold water.

Here they are under the microscope, showing that network of living cells (green) and the hollow dead cells in between that hold water.

The Peatlands Restoration project aims to reverse past damage from moorland drainage, that has killed the Sphagnum and led to rapid peat erosion. 

This is the only moss-themed beer that I've ever encountered and has instantly become an indispensable addition to any bryological field trip.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

The Many Faces of the Mountain Pansy

Delighted to find that there were scores of mountain pansies Viola lutea still in flower beside the Pennine Way near High Force in Teesdale today, This is a plant with a long flowering season - the first I saw in bloom were open way back in April.

Mountain pansy has an amazing range of flower colours and markings. All four of these forms were flowering within a metre of each other. The pure yellow form is the most uncommon but the rarest is a pure white form that I've only seen on a couple of occasions, in Weardale.

Several of these plants were flowering around rabbit burrows in close-grazed grass, so it seems that rabbits don't eat them.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Sweat bees

I need to thank Grant Burleigh on iSpot for identifying these as sweat bees Lasioglossum sp.

They are only small - about 1cm. long - but they seem powerfully attracted to marjoram flowers. There are dozens of them on the plants in our herb patch.

When they weren't feeding they congregated on a dead shoot of the plant. There are about a dozen here and I suspect that most of them are males, with a single female in there somewhere.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Wildlife Viewed Through Beer Goggles: 5. A Tale of Two Raptors

A while ago I began a series of posts on wildlife-themed beers that has lapsed somewhat. I haven't given up alcohol - I just hadn't got around to search out any more relevant beers. 

Recently I've sampled two excellent examples that each has a different story attached. 

First, Red Kite ruby ale, brewed to celebrate the reintroduction of red kites into the lower Derwent Valley near Gateshead. 

There is much to celebrate in this example of what is now fashionably called 'rewilding'. The success of the project, with what is now a well established red kite population, is the source of immense local pride. The birds have been adopted by schools and used to promote local businesses.

The local buses are decorated with red kites images ....

.... there are red kite walks all over the Derwent Country Park, where you are almost guaranteed to see at least one of these fabulous birds whenever you visit..

.... there are Red Kite Country road signs .....

... red kite themed events like this fitness walk

... red kite public art, like this magnificent wood carving by local chain-saw maestro Tommy Craggs..

..... without doubt, the reintroduction of these birds has done wonders for the region

* * * * * 

The second beer is this delightful Sky Dancer golden ale by the Bowland Brewery, the perfect pint for a sunny summer afternoon. 

It celebrates the wonderful hen harrier that does, from time to time, attempt to breed on moorland in the Forest of Bowland in Cumbria.

As the bottle label says:

The Forest of Bowland is an important breeding ground for the rare and beautiful hen harrier - known locally as the Sky Dancer because of its elaborate flying displays.

There's some YouTube footage of their aerial antics here

The problem is that your chances of witnessing these displays are very slim because the Forest of Bowland, which should be perfect habitat for them, has been a disaster area for this persecuted bird.

You can read all about it in this Guardian article by Patrick Barkham 

Or visit YouTube to see at BBC Programme about 10 years of illegal persecution of these birds

The beer is wonderful though. Highly recommended!

*  *  *  *  *

So there you have it. In one case, an enlightened community that has welcomed the return of a raptor that has brought pride, pleasure and economic benefit to the North East.

And on the other side of the Pennines ..... well, read that excellent newspaper article and watch the YouTube report and judge for yourself.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Promising start to the toadstool season

Thursday's Guardian Country Diary is about toadstools.

It's been an early and very promising start to the toadstool season so far this year. Here are a few species that we've seen so far.

Larch bolete Suillus grevillei in a larch plantation at Backstone Bank, Wolsingham, Weardale

Purple brittlegill Russula atropurpurea Backstone Bank wood, Wolsingham, Weardale

Shaggy inkcap aka lawyer's wig Coprinus comatus near Romaldkirk, Teesdale

Fairy ink cap Coprinellus disseminatus Weardale

Dryad's saddle Polyporus squamosus on a tree stump on a golf course near Wylam, Tyne valley

Lumpy Bracket Trametes gibbosa Hollingside Wood, Durham

Purple jellydisc Ascocoryne sarcoides Hollingside wood, Durham city

Weeping widow Lacrymaria lacrymabunda Weardale

Sulphur tuft Hypholoma fasciculare Backstone Bank wood, Wolsingham, Weardale

Blackening waxcaps Hygrocybe conica in a sheep pasture near Egglestone in Teesdale

Oyster mushroom Pleurotus ostreatus Hollingside Wood, Durham city.