Cold weather from the north arrived over the past few weeks. Initially hard frosts covered the earth along with foggy mornings; then snow arrived overnight on the 11th December. Due to the below average temperatures it lasted for a week but once the warmer southern weather and rain arrived (last Sunday) the snow disappeared as quickly as it arrived; It was beautiful while it lasted.
Also I finally caught Covid (after avoiding it until now). Thankfully, apart from leaving me with a cough I am much better, however for a while my world was reduced to watching birds from my flat. The Rowan (Sorbus aucuparia) outside has been stripped of all berries, no doubt the snow last week was a factor as birds had less places to forage and migratory birds arrived. A group of Redwings (Turdus iliacus) visited the tree along with Starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) and also a Song thrush (Turdus philomelos). Further information on Redwings can be found via the RSPB website.
It was also nice to see my resident Blue tits (Cyanistes caeruleus) and a Robin (Erithacus rubecula) appear too.
I can’t believe it’s the Winter Solstice already. I am looking forward to taking a few weeks off; I will take the time to relax, reflect and look to the year ahead.
The shift in seasons is definitely noticeable now. This November is warmer than usual, so we still haven’t had a frost here in southern England; however autumn colours, shorter days, wet weather and fungi have arrived over the past month.
On a recent trip to Kew gardens several fungi including some Horse mushrooms (Agaricus arvensis),
and Parasol mushrooms (Macrolepiota procera)
were dotted around the lawns as well as a group of Glistening inkcap (Coprinellus micaceus) on a decaying tree stump.
I think the weather had put many people off visiting which meant the gardens were fairly quiet. Although the odd heavy rain shower arrived while we were there, most of the day was dry and eventually the sun shone before we left, highlighting the vibrant leaves against a grey sky.
This year, I finally got to see a couple of Fly agaric (Amanita muscaria) fungi for the first time if my life (outside of books).
I’d hoped to see these iconic fairytale fungi for a long time. Known for being hallucinogenic these incredibly toxic fungi are usually found in Birch (Betula), Pine (Pinus) and Spruce (Picea) woodlands; however I found them in a garden near a single Birch tree. Fly agaric supply nutrients to nearby trees along the underground mycorrhizal network therefore they have a close association with trees. A traditional use for this poisonous fungus is as an insecticide for house flies due to the Ibotenic acid contained within them (hence the common name for this fungi). Added so a saucer of milk, once a fly drinks the substance it becomes drousy and drowns.
These mushrooms weren’t the only exciting thing I got to observe in recent weeks. My Fishbone cactus (Epiphyllum anguliger) which has lived in my bathroom for many years flowerered for the first time. An epiphytic cacti, originally from Mexican rainforests, this plant develops aerial roots in order to attach itself to host trees. It likes humid indirect light and requires more watering than desert cacti. Clearly the conditions in my bathroom are ideal. The unusual looking flowers (which are produced once the plant is mature) were highy scented, similar to TCP but more floral. They take weeks to develop and once opened only last for a few days before dying off.
Since the Equinox on the 23rd September, there have been a few misty mornings and the leaves are beginning to loose their green colouring. Autumn cyclamen (Cyclamen hederifolium) and Crocuses (Colchicum autumnale) have been blooming for a few weeks now and even mushrooms are beginning to emerge. A few I have found recently include;
Evenings are noticebly drawing in earlier these days. Saturn is still visible with the naked eye at this time, as is Jupiter. The latter can be seen very clearly, in fact only the moon is brighter in the night sky at the moment. I managed to capture an image on the 10th September which can be seen below.
Also in September my partner and I went on a break for a few days to the north east of England. We stayed in a lovely vintage caravan near Durham. On the first day we spent the morning exploring the city, after which we walked alongside the River Wear; there was lots of Himalayan balsam (Impatiens glandulifera) in flower (both along the river bank as well as beside the pathway). We walked to Durham University’s Botanic Garden to have lunch. While we were there we witnessed a Stoat (Mustela erminea) under aerial attack from a Magpie (Pica pica) as we sat in the North American Arboretum (no photo evidence unfortunately). This was our first encounter with a Stoat. Similar to Weasels (Mustela nivalis) Stoats can be easily distinguished from them due to the black tip on their longer tail. The Woodland trust has an article about how to differentiate them on their website.
Then in the afternoon we went to Seaham beach to search for seaglass. A well known area for seaglass searchers, Seaham beaches are noted on maps as being glass beaches due to the huge amount of glass pebbles (of various colours) that can be found there. The glass was discarded into the sea from the Seaham Bottle Works which used to be in the area (between 1853 and 1921. It is known that 20,000,000 hand-blown bottles a year were produced at the height of manufacturing at the factory). It was a quiet sunny day when we visited the area and the sound of the waves crashing against the beach was mesmerising.
While we stopped for a coffee at the local cafe, we saw a Purple sandpiper (Calidris maritima) with a large group of Gulls (Larinae). Similar in appearance to Gulls, the Sandpiper was larger, speckled and greyer as shown in the following image (taken from the visitor notice board next to the cafe).
This wading bird is a winter visitor in the north east of England. It’s numbers are at a vulnerable level, therefore it is red on the UK conservation status list. They will eat Winkles (Littorina littorea), insects, spiders, crustaceans and also plants.
On the Wednesday, we drove up to Northumberland to visit Lindisfarne. As we drove to the village we got to see the location of Vera’s house (from the ITV detective series Vera). This dwelling is privately owned but it’s possible to park nearby and view it from a distance.
There was lots of wildlife to see on the journey towards and around the village too. On the way across the causeway, we noticed a Curlew (Numenius arquata) amongst other wading birds. As with the Sandpiper, the Curlew is also red on the UK conservation status list. Approximately 30% of Western Europe’s flocks will overwinter in the UK, unfortunately there was a sign warning of Bird (Avian) flu on the island. Bird flu has been rampant in the UK this year which doesn’t bode well for lots of birds but it is particularly foreboding for many waders and seabird populations. The Curlew’s down curved bill was the give away to its identification. They search for worms, shellfish and shrimps in the nature reserve along the causeway. The RSPB gives a description of Curlew’s here.
It was amazing to witness lots of European grey seals (Halichoerus grypus) as we wondered down by the islands beaches, searching for more seaglass. It is possible to witness them swimming nearby, next to the sandbanks and nature reserve beaches which they inhabit. It is also possible to hear them, unfortunately I was unable to obtain a great video of this; however I found a recording online here, of Grey Seals Singing on the Mewstone in South Devon which gives you an idea of what they sounded like on our visit to Lindisfarne.
Pups start to be born in September so perhaps we could hear the young with the females, or maybe the adults were singing to one another. Whatever the reason for their beautiful vocalisations, it was absolutely amazing to listen to the haunting sound.
As well as these creatures, we got to see some flora as we investigated the island too. There was;
It was lovely to get away for a couple of days while witnessing wildlife that I had never seen before. Relaxing by the sea, especially on Lindisfarne was so rejuvenating. Obviously two full days with travelling time either side wasn’t long enough, but there’s always next years adventure.
It might be the start of meteorological autumn but it’s still too early for leaves to start falling from trees; yet over the past few weeks this has been occurring. Referred to as false autumn, this leaf (and acorn) drop is occurring as a result of the extreme temperatures and drought we’ve experienced this year. It is a sign of stress as trees attempt to conserve water and energy. Current lower morning temperatures have also lead to an autumnal feeling. Thankfully we are now experiencing rainfall so perhaps this will prevent trees from showing further signs of stress even though it doesn’t stop us being in drought. Hopefully autumnal colour won’t be affected too much and we will still witness the spectacular seasonal colours this year.
A couple of weeks ago my partner and I went for a walk to spot Saturn ascending in the sky at dusk; we visited the local woodland park. At nine o’clock, on one of the hottest days of the year, the temperature was quite pleasant. As we walked through the woodland to an open area, where we could view the planet, we got to experience bats flying close by (the following videos is of some footage I managed to obtain).
Without a Bat detector, I have no way of correctly identifying the species out of the 18 that roost in the UK. According to the information I found on the Hertfordshire and Middlesex Bat Group website, the ones we most likely encountered in the area are either the Common Pipistrelle (Pipistrellus pipistrellus) or Soprano Pipistrelle (Pipistrellus pygmaeus). Regardless of the species, just experiencing the creatures flying nearby to capture insects was amazing. I haven’t witnessed bats in fight since I was a child.
It’s still possible to see some butterflies and bees at this time of year so late year flowering plants are essential.
White tailed bumblebees (Bombus lucorum), Buff tailed bumblebees (Bombus terrestris), Red tailed bumblebees (Bombus lapidarius), Common carder bees (Bombus pascuorum) and even some Honey bees (Apis mellifera) still forage in September. The Butterfly Conservation charity produced a photo (see below) of common butterflies and moths to see at this time of year.
During the previous week I was still noticing several Hummingbird hawk moths (Macroglossum stellatarum) too. These moths have been quite prevalent this year.
Within the past month the temperature has reached the highest on record in the UK at 40.2 Celsius. Here in the south, rain still evades us leading to hosepipe bans in some counties. Plus as I write this blog another heatwave begins. While the parched grass will recover once rain eventually falls, and some insects may benefit from these conditions, this drought is not good for nature in general (including humans due to amber and red heat warnings for health issues and fires). We need to use resources more thoughtfully and manage the land better so that nature (to me humans are part of nature not separate from it) isn’t placed under unnecessary pressure due to extreme weather conditions anymore.
Most wildlife isn’t adapted to this current weather and certainly has no chance against wild fires, especially Badgers (Meles meles) and Hedgehogs (Erinaceus europaeus– whose numbers have been in decline for many years for other reasons too). Even birds with second broods will be finding these times difficult; that is why it’s so important to place water sources at both ground level and higher up for birds and Hedgehogs at this time. Plus insects like Butterflies and Bees suffer when flowers start to whither early due to water shortage. Nature can recover from the odd hot dry year but unfortunately this is a trend, year on year, due to climate change so we need to be concerned and act now. Stephen Moss has written a wonderful article regarding this issue recently, it can be read here.
Given the information from the article mentioned above, it will be interesting to see how this prolonged drought will affect the results of the Big Butterfly Count this year (which took place from the 15th July to the 7th August) and consequently next years results too.
I have undertaken a few counts this year. The first time I looked out for Butterflies was on a warm afternoon, in a garden containing a Buddleia along with some Lavender (Lavandula) and Mint (Mentha) that was flowering. During that time, I identified; 5 Red admirals (Vanessa atalanta) 5 Commas (Polygonia c-album) 2 Peacock (Aglais io) 5 Gate keepers (Pyronia tithonus) 1 Meadow brown (Maniola jurtina) 2 Small tortoishell (Aglais urticae) together with 1 Hummingbird Hawkmoth (Macroglossum stellatarum). The Hummingbird Hawkmoth is fascinating. I have observed two individuals visiting Buddleia this year in different gardens that I work at. It is so amazing to watch it collect nectar as it hovers next to flowers.
On separate occasions (at the previously mentioned garden) I also noticed a Large skipper (Ochlodes sylvanus) and a Ringlet (Aphantopus hyperantus) too. That garden also has an allotment attached to it where I got to observe the full lifecycle of a ladybird on one bean plant (thanks to the Blackfly being present). On this occasion it was the Harlequin (Harmonia axyridis) ladybird.
My second Butterfly Count was during a morning as I picked Blackberries (Rubus) at the local woodland park, where I saw 5 Gatekeepers, 1 Speckled wood (Pararge aegeria) and 1 Small copper (Lycaena phlaeas).
The Small copper is one I had never seen before. It is a small butterfly with a wingspan of 32-35mm. The caterpillars feed on Common Sorrel (Rumex acetosa), Sheep’s Sorrel (R. acetosella) and sometimes the Broad-leaved Dock (R. obtusifolius). They can be found in heath, moor and grassland together with woodland clearings or on waste ground.
At my allotment I have seen lots of Cabbage whites, along with the odd Peacock and Small tortoishell as well as a small blue Butterfly (that never settled so I was unable to identify it properly but was most likely a Holly blue- Celastrina argiolus). Thankfully I have also noticed plenty of bees during my butterfly observations, including honey, bumblebees and solitary bees.
Lughnasadh (also known as Lammas) a time when harvests begin to be ready for picking, occurred at the beginning of August. During this time I love to wander through natural environments, spending time observing the changes of the seasons. On my walk the previous weekend I observed Sloes (from Blackthorn- Prunus spinosa) and Elderberries (from Elder- Sambucus) already ripening alongside the Blackberries.
I must confess that I often struggle to enjoy the hottest days of summer. To me extremely hot temperatures are often overwhelming and I would love nothing better than to hibernate underground during the hottest times. I find the days exhausting and uncomfortable (due to the constant itchiness and sore skin). At these moments I rely on my mental strength to keep in mind that ‘this too shall pass’. I also try to remind myself that I love the changing seasons, including summer, and all they bring with them. Gratitude helps as each day I look for the little things that bring me joy such as the shining sun, the amazingly beautiful wildlife around me and the cooler night time temperatures. So until the heat reduces significantly I will keep taking things slowly, keep hydrated, take plenty of rest and be kind to myself. I am under no pressure to get things done at this time which is why this post took so long to complete.
I have been watching a wild flower grow, in the small garden that I look after in front of my flat. Initially unable to identify it (as I didn’t recognise the foliage) I patiently waited throughout autumn and winter to see what emerged. Then in late spring it developed stalks and flowerheads enabling me to see it was a Field scabious- (Knautia arvensis).
This perennial is blooming now. Bees are loving the flowers.
Field scabious is usually found in places such as grassland, meadows, grassy verges and hedgerows. This self set is obviously enjoying similar conditions in my little plot; thriving in an area against a brick wall with dry, partially shady conditions. It is wonderful to see it attract so many beneficial insects so am happy for it to remain where it is.
The allotment is coming on leaps and bounds. The strawberries (which rarely make it home) were a sweet reward as I watered daily through the recent heatwave and continue to ripen. The Blackflies on the Broad beans were eventually joined by seven spot (Coccinella septempunctata) and Harlequin (Harmonia axyridis) ladybirds, together with lots of their larvae; proof that if you leave pests, predators will appear to deal with them; nature really is wonderful.
The recent higher temperatures have encouraged butterflies to fly around. Lately I have seen Small tortoishells (Aglais urticae), Peacocks (Aglais io), Marbled whites (Melanargia galathea) and Speckled woods (Pararge aegeria).
Also on one sunny day last week, while eating lunch outside, I heard a bird song that I didn’t recognise. I recorded it on the Chirp-o-matic app (the name makes me think of Wallace and Gromit) to discover that it was a Yellowhammer (Emberiza citrinella). The rhythm and length of notes makes it sound like they’re saying ‘a little bit of bread and no cheese’. In fact this phrase is used by birders to identify it by the song alone and can be heard on the RSPB website.
Unfortunately I couldn’t see the bird which was a shame as I would have loved to see its yellow plumage. Part of the bunting family, both males and females have yellow colouring mixed with some brown (the males can be distinguished as they are more vibrant). These birds are currently on the red list for UK conservation status and therefore Protected by The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. Found on farmland, they eat seeds, insects, worms, caterpillars, spiders and snails and weigh in at about 25-36g weight (a similar size to a sparrow).
To encourage yellowhammer numbers, the RSPB has produced information for farmers so they can take action to help these birds; However the actions can be applied by anyone living near farmland, and can be found here.
It was lovely to have a week off a few weeks ago. On one day I spent time walking around a Bluebell (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) wood with my partner. The sun shone through the deciduous trees giving a beautiful dappled light; perfect conditions for both Bluebells and Wild garlic (Allium ursinum) which bloom at the same time (sometimes together) in deciduous woods during May. However on our walk we only saw bluebells. I have come across Wild garlic before though. It is important not to confuse Wild garlic with Lily-of-the-valley (Convallaria majalis) before these plants bloom, as they have similar foliage and while Wild garlic is edible, Lily-of-the-valley is poisonous.
Once in bloom, Wild garlic is clearly identifiable (as shown above), plus it has a clear garlicky aroma when it is disturbed. The leaves can be eaten raw or cooked (blanched and eaten on their own like spinach or used as an ingredient). The flowers (wonderful for pollinators) are also edible and can be used in salads. An example of a recipe found on the Woodland trust website can be found here (together with information on responsible foraging). Wild garlic is one plant used to identify ancient woodland, with damp chalky soil, as it takes a long time to establish itself in great quantity.
Also along the walk, a male Tawny (Strix aluco) owl could be heard in the distance. Plus, on one Oak (Quercus) tree a Great spotted woodpecker (Dendrocopos major) was seen moments before it hid on the far side of the trunk. As we watched closely, we noticed a couple of Tree creepers (Certhia familiaris) too. These birds were climbing as well as flying to and from a hole left from where a branch had snapped away from the trunk. Presumably they had a nest there and were finding spiders and insects to feed their young. I was engrossed as I watched them for some time. Unfortunately the Woodpecker never returned into view but I thanked it for showing us the Tree creepers.
Around the edges of the woodland (near some fields) lots of ferns were unfurling. It was lovely to notice a Click beetle (Athous haemorrhoidalis) resting on a frond.
About 15mm in length, these beetles can be found in May through to August, amongst headgerows and in meadows. Their young larvae eat roots which means this insect can become a pest on root crops in this country. They received their common name due to the noise they make as they flick themselves into the air to upright themselves if they ever land on their backs (unfortunately we didn’t witness this).
As we were leaving, we eventually saw two Fallow deer (Dama dama). Even though deer are difficult to spot due to their cautious nature, I was hoping to see some on our walk (they are common in the area we visited). It was so amazing to have witnessed them eating, completely unaware of our presence. Fallow deer eat trees, grass, flowers, shrubs and brambles.
Another deer I have seen, in woodlands attached to gardens where I work, are Muntjac (Muntiacus reevesi). Both Fallows and Muntjacs were introduced into the UK from Asia and thrive in the UK. Deer can be seen as a nuisance if they enter gardens, however information on wildlife friendly ways to keep them away, the height of fencing required as well as deer resistant plants can be found on the RHS website, along with the British Deer Society .
With May finally here, spring is now in full swing. Lots of things are growing on the allotment from seedlings to fruit, even the Rhubarb is almost ready to pick.
During a woodland walk, on the Easter weekend, I observed the first Speckled wood (Pararge aegeria) butterfly of the year. Plus local ornamental Cherry trees (Prunus) began their spectacular show at the same time; later joined by the flowers of the Hawthorn (Crataegus) , Rowan (Sorbus) and Horse chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum).
Over the last few weeks, more wildflowers have started to bloom, including Buttercups (Ranunculus), Stitchwort (Stellaria), Ground-ivy (Glechoma hederacea) Honesty (Lunaria annua) and Hedge garlic (Alliaria petiolata) along with Cuckoo flower (Cardamine pratensis).
Another butterfly that began to emerge recently is the Orange-tip (Anthocharis cardamines). Hedge garlic and Cuckoo flower are important food sources for Orange-tip caterpillars, so it is lovely to think these butterflies will be laying eggs on the plants I’ve noticed to ensure future generations; the verge not being mown, allowing both plants to develop, enabling this.
The ‘No mow May’ campaign is back this year. Encouraging us to avoid mowing lawns in order to encourage a wide variety of wildflowers to bloom (including rare ones), thus increasing the availability of pollen and nectar for pollinators as they start to emerge (along with helping butterfly populations, as discussed above). After several years of this campaign together with the every flower counts survey, improvements in wildflower growth have been recorded, as people report their sightings taken at this time. An article from the Plantlife charity discusses their findings in more detail here.
Even leaving the humblest of flowers to flower on lawns, like Dandelions (Taraxacum), Daisies (Bellis perennis) and Buttercups helps.
What a mixed bag of weather we’ve had in the UK recently. It seems strange experiencing the current dry, warm weather given the snow, frost and april showers we had during the previous weeks.
Deciduous trees are turning green, as leaves unfurl and wildflowers continue to bloom. Snake’s-head fritillary (Fritillaria meleagris), Speedwells (Veronica), White Dead-nettle (Lamium album), Red Dead-nettle (Lamium purpureum), Yellow archangel (Lamium galeobdolon), Forget-me-nots (Myosotis) and Cowslips (Primula veris) are all flowering at the moment, with English Blubells (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) beginning to open up too.
Last week I caught a glimpse of a blue butterfly, my first sighting of the year, most likely a Holly blue (Celastrina argiolus). I also found another Red kite (Milvus milvus) feather as I worked last Tuesday (see below).
Even Tadpoles have begun to emerge, including in the pond we have near our plot on the allotment; hopefully they will help keep the slug and snail numbers down this year.
Slugs and snails have been in the news a lot this month because the Metaldehyde slug pellets ban has finally come into force in the UK. Perhaps we could view these creatures in a different way, after all they do good in nature; we can’t blame them going for an easy meal of soft tender leaves which just happen to be our prized plants. Interestingly only a small number of the 44 species in the UK are responsible for the damage we experience in gardens while the others feed on dead organic matter. I read an interesting article by Dr Andrew Salisbury, from the RHS, in The Guardian on this subject.
On my allotment I find wool pellets, copper barriers and cloches are helpful; along with growing seedlings on in pots before planting them out. Transplanting larger, stronger plants is better as they are able to withstand any damage, I also spend time collecting slugs and snails from hidden damp dark places and moving them to an area far away where they will cause less damage to crops. Encouraging predators (frogs, toads, hedgehogs, birds, slow worms (Anguis fragilis) and ground beetles) is always a great idea too, along with not having areas for them to hide near vulnerable plants.
A biological control that can be used, for slugs only, are Nematodes (Phasmarhabditis hermaphrodita). Watered into the ground these eventually kill the slugs as they infect them with bacteria once they’ve entered the slugs body. I have never gone for this option as I find the other measures suffice.
The other option is to grow plants which slugs and snails do not eat. Ones I’ve noticed they avoid include Ajuga, Aquilegia, Digitalis, Fuchsia, Geum Penstemon and Pulmonaria (further examples can be found on the internet).
The full moon in March, is commonly named the Worm moon in the UK as it coincides with the appearance of worm casts. Worm casts begin to appear as the soil warms up enabling worm activity on the top layers of soil. They are often the bain of those who love prestine lawns but easily dealt with by raking, to break them up before mowing (thus preventing small bare soil patches that encourages wild flower and moss growth). However, apart from this slight inconvenience for some, obviously worms are hugely beneficial creatures in nature. They help create a healthy soil ecosystem, aid the decomposition of organic matter, improve soil structure and increase available nutrients for plants.
In the UK there are 27 species of earthworm, which can be categorised into three types, Anecic, Endogeic and Epigeic. The latter are surface dwellers which breakdown vegetation lying on the ground. These small, usually red worms (or stripey in the case of Tiger worms- Eiseniafetida) are often seen in composts. The other two types of worm burrow. The most commonly seen in gardens are the Anecic worms (which pull leaves down into the soil). These large reddish brown worms are responsible for worm casts in lawns and burrow vertically while the paler coloured Endogeic worms burrow horizontally and live further down in the soil. More information on earthworms can be discovered here on the Earthworm Society website.
Another notable date that occurred last week on the astronomical calender (in the northern hemisphere) was the Spring equinox. The moment in March when day and night length are equal and officially the first day of spring. (Meteorologically this already occurred on the first of the month). Whichever date you prefer to observe as it’s start, Spring has definitely arrived here in the UK.
Nature seemed to celebrate the arrival of Spring with several days of unseasonably warm weather, together with the appearance of more butterflies, with Peacocks (Aglais io), Commas (Polygonia c-album) and yet more Brimstones (Gonepteryx rhamni) fluttering about, together with lots more bumblebees. So far I have seen lots of Buff-tailed bumblebee (Bombus terrestris) and a few Red-tailed bumblebees (Bombus lapidarius). Even Seven-spot ladybirds (Coccinella septempunctata) came out of hiding last week.
More trees are blossomimg too. Magnolias, Camellias, Forsythia, Gorse (Ulex) and Willows (Salix) are flowering now, joining the Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa). Plus yellow and green carpets of Lesser Celendine (Ficaria verna) have been popping up everywhere.