Posted in nature

Hints of Summer with Winter Showers; Must be April.

Last week had very mixed weather. Easter Sunday was sunny and warm (a hint that summer isn’t far away) replaced by snow showers and frost on Monday and Tuesday; eventually cold days with occasional sunny spells remained.

I took advantage of the glorious weather last Sunday and went for a walk around my local woodland park. More Brimstone (Gonepteryx rhamni) butterflies were flitting about, along with one Comma (Polygonia c-album) and several Peacock (Aglais io) butterflies too.
Blackthorn was still blossoming in earnest, attracting these butterflies as well as bees and hoverflies.

A Peacock butterfly feeding in the sun.

Pollinators weren’t the only wildlife noticeable; lots of Squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis) were running between and up the surrounding trees while birds were singing.

I even noticed a couple of Blackcaps (Sylvi atricapilla). I’m not sure if these birds are resident to the woodland or migrated from Europe or northern Africa. Since the 1960’s records of these Warblers remaining in the UK all year round exhist and since then numbers have increased. Those not living the UK full time visit from April or May and remain until September or October.

It is the first time I have ever seen Blackcaps (presumably a pair given how they were interacting with each other).
As they were so high up in the tree, completely unaware I was watching from below, I was unable to actually see their caps (males have black caps while females have a chestnut colouration to the top of their head) however I was able to identify them from their bird song. An example of this can be heard on the RSPB website.

This wasn’t the only amazing experience I had with a bird last week. On the following Tuesday I was privileged to witness a Wren (Troglodytes troglodytes) flying around me as I worked, singing as it did so. At one point it landed on a shrub within a few feet from me; I remained as still as I possibly could, watching this amazing spectacle. Usually remaining near cover Wrens are usually heard but not seen so this was lovely to see; plus I managed to obtain footage.

Posted in nature

Tuesday was a School Day

The lovely sunshine we’ve had on and off recently has encouraged lots of wildflowers to start blooming over the past week. Amongst the Daffodils were Daisies (Bellis perennis), Snake’s head Fritillary (Fritillaria meleagris),

Snake’s-head fritillary has become naturalised in the lawn of this woodland area of the garden.

Dandelions (Taraxacum),

Perfect for pollinators, especially bees but also butterflies.

Cowslip (Primula veris),

Primroses on my allotment adds a little colour at this time.

Green alkanet (Pentaglottis sempervirens) and Forgot-me-nots (Myosotis). Even brave Tulips were beginning to open up.

Last Tuesday I learnt another plant, the Marsh marigold (Caltha palustris).

This particular plant was in a raised water feature made from an old rectangular metal container which replicated it’s natural growing conditions. In the wild, Marsh marigold grows in damp conditions such as ponds, marshes and wet woodland and flowers from March to July. It’s common name ‘Kingcup’ is a reference to the large buttercup like flowers resemblance to large golden cups (therefore cup of the kings); Even the latin Caltha means goblet.

A wonderful addition to ponds in gardens, this perennial provides shelter for amphibians as well as nectar for pollinators (Bees, beetles and flies).

However, one word of warning, the sap can be an irritant as it contains glycoside protoanemonin, especially in the older growth.

Magnolias and Ornamental cherry trees, including my Prunus incisa ‘Kojo-no-mai’ on the allotment, joined the wonderful display of Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa) blossom.

Sunny blue skies are the perfect backdrop to this huge Magnolia and Ornamental cherry (see below).
Along with the Cowslips, this ‘Kojo-no-mai’ cherry provides some pollen and nectar on my allotment.

I also noticed that Horse chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum) trees were showing evidence of flower development alongside recently unfurled leaves; although they won’t bloom until May.

Will it be a good year for playing Conkers?

With all these flowers appearing, it was wonderful to see more bees take advantage of all the pollen and nectar available. On the sunniest days I even caught glimpses of the first Brimstone (Gonepteryx rhamni) and Peacock (Aglais io) butterflies of the year; venturing out of hibernation when it is warm enough too.

Posted in nature

A Splash of Purple

The Common Dog Violet (Viola riviniana) has begun to bloom, both in the wild (in woodlands, heaths and amongst hedgerows)
as well as gardens.

This splash of purple usually arrives in April and lasts until June. If you are lucky, you may notice certain Fritillary butterflies feed from and lay their eggs on this plant (a spectacle I’ve yet to witness).

Willows were blooming last week too. There is one mature Goat Willow (Salix caprea) that I see regularly as I work. Another common name for the Salix caprea is Pussy willow, due to the male catkins resemblance to cats paws before they bloom.

Only males catkins turn yellow once they open.

Willow trees are dioecious; therefore females catkins, grow on separate trees to the male ones. Unlike the male catkins shown above, female ones are green and longer in length. Catkins appear on the trees before the leaves do.

So many catkins were open that the tree seemed alive with the sound of bees.
I love the reddish tinge in the bark.

I am not sure how old this specific tree is but the species can live for about 300 years and grow up to 10 meters tall. The specimen in the garden I work at has definitely reached it full height.

The Kilmarnock willow (Salix caprea ‘Kilmarnock’) is a much smaller version of the Goat willow tree (grafted onto a dwarfing rootstock). I often see this tree in gardens and they were blooming last week too.

Unlike its larger counterpart, the Kilmarnock willow is a great addition to the average sized garden as it too is loved by bees.

The pollen covered Buff-tailed bumblebee pictured here clearly enjoyed visiting the male catkins on this Kilmarnock willow.

Goat willow trees are usually found in woodland, hedgerows and scrub, especially near waterways such as lakes, streams and canals.

Willows are a fantastic source of pollen and nectar for bees and other pollinators. They’re also a good food source for Sallow kitten (Furcula furcula), Sallow clearwing (Synanthedon flaviventris), Dusky clearwing (Paranthrene tabaniformis) and Lunar hornet clearwing (Sesia bembeciformis) moth caterpillars too. Even birds forage for insects amongst their branches.

As the wood burns well it is used to make charcoal. Plus it’s also used for wattle in timber frame houses.

My favourite fact is that the words witch, wicked and Wiccan are derived from Willow.

Traditionally, it was used to help treat toothache by chewing the bark and used to relieve diarrhoea, arthritis, sore throats, stop bleeding and clean wounds. In fact Aspirin, derived from salicin, was sourced from Willows.

The bacteria Brenneria salicis can cause Watermark disease in Willows which causes dieback and eventual death to the trees if left untreated.

If you are looking to add a small tree to your garden, the Kilmarnock willow is definitely worth looking into; unless you have a large garden then choose a mature male Goat willow instead (the bees will thank you for it).

Posted in Allotment, nature

New Life

What a week; variable weather (rain, sun and strong winds), new life (in the form of frogspawn) was evident and the Primroses (Primula) finally began to bloom.

After three weeks, the frogspawn of the Common frog (Rana temporaria) become tadpoles. Initially they eat algae before feeding on leaves, moss and small insects.

From about fourteen weeks they metamorphose from tadpoles into froglets (young frogs). The rate of metamorphosis depends on environmental factors. Tadpoles can delay their transformation, for several months, if there isn’t enough food, there are lots of predators to escape or the weather is too cold (they are also susceptible to frosts). When they become Froglets they start to eat invertebrates such as snails, slugs and flies just as mature frogs do.

Frogs can live between five and ten years (if they manage to avoid being eaten by snakes, owls, herons, otters, badgers and weasels) reaching sexual maturity at two or three years of age. Frogspawn can become food for fish, beetles, newts, dragonfly larvae, rats, foxes and hedgehogs.

I became aware of another trees lifecycle last week, the non-native Sweet gum (Liquidambar styraciflua). This is of my favourite ornamental trees along with Gingko biloba, Magnolia stellata, Tibetan cherry (Prunus serrula) and Acers.

Although I noticed this tree last Friday, it really comes into its own during autumn when the leaves produce a brilliant display of crimson, oranges and purples.

I love the first part of it’s name, Liquidambar, named by Carl Linnaeus, who combined the Latin ‘Liquidus’ with the Arabic ‘Ambar’ (for amber); it refers to the gum that the tree exudes when the trunk is wounded.

The mature fruit remain on the trees throughout winter and can be seen as the the leafbuds appear.

Elsewhere last week, the Rhubarb on the plot continued to grow and one of my houseplants, the Small-leafed spiderwort (Tradescantia fluminensis) began to bloom.

I am salivating just looking at this photo; looking forward to harvesting it when ready.
I almost missed these small delicate flowers as they blend in with the leaves. Tradescantia are so easy to look after and propagate.
Posted in Allotment, nature

A Spring into New Beginnings

The first of March, meteorological spring along with St Davids day all took place last Monday. Even the first grass cut of the season took place last week (albeit only a high cut to level off uneven growth).

Blackthorn was fully blossoming and spring flowers still bloomed as the birds, amphibians and insects continued to become more active. There were a few new observations; I noticed a single Two-leaf squill (Scilla bifolia) growing in a lawn and, in the same garden, saw a male Ring necked Pheasant (Phasianus colchicus) strutting his stuff.

Things are moving on at the allotment. Sweetpea and Vegetable seedlings are doing well as are the seeds sown for cut and wild flower areas on the plot. The beds are ready for direct sowing which I hope to undertake within the next few weeks and I wait for Yellow rattle (Rhinanthus minor) and Bird’s-foot trefoil (Lotus corniculatus) to germinate. I also hope to get the shed painted, install a water conserving system and build a bigger greenhouse sometime in the future.

While I am looking forward to the new growing season to begin in earnest I am also mindful to enjoy this moment; to stop, observe, reflect and plan and allowing nature to dictate the speed when things need to begin.

Aubergine and Chilli seedlings
Kale seedlings
Tithonia, Scabious and White clover seedlings (Trifolium repens)
Posted in nature

Natures beauty

A lovely mix of Snowdrops and Crocus.

Record breaking February temperatures, sun shining, bees foraging, and spring flowers popping up everywhere. How can you not feel cheerful? Last Thursday was the first grass cut of the season, on Saturday I saw a couple of Brimstones flitting about and on Monday I noticed Blackthorn flowering. Time to report Nature’s Calendar timings.

Posted in nature

Glimpses of Warmer Weather

Last week the sun shone and temperatures increased; in fact some days were unusually warm for the time of year. However, as gardeners will testify, you shouldn’t get too carried away, colder temperatures and frosts (that nip unprotected tender seedlings) can quickly return. It was lovely to see nature basking in the sunshine though (eager to enjoy the moments of glorious weather just like the rest of us) as winter flowering plants are joined by spring blooms and insects, amphibians and birds become more active.

Last week I noticed the dawn chorus begin in earnest. On Wednesday morning I managed to identify ten birds (by sound) when bird calls were heard alongside singing; those birds were Jackdaws (Corvus monedula), Crow (Corvus corone), Robin (Erithacus rubecula), Pigeon (Columba palumbus), Blue tit (Cyanistes caeruleus), Coal tit (Periparus ater), Great spotted Woodpecker (Dendrocopos major), Ring-necked parakeet (Psittacula krameri), Magpies (Pica pica) and Sparrows (Passer domesticus).

I even heard Skylarks (Alauda arvensis) singing throughout the day on several occasions. As these birds are red on the UK conservation status (and therefore protected by The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981) it is always wonderful to hear these birds located in different places as I worked nearby.

Robins could be seen in pairs, relinquishing their incredibly territorial need to be the only robin within a garden and allowing a mate to feed alongside them. I also saw frogs and newts becoming active in ponds; it won’t be long before we see frogspawn.

At the beginning of the week, there was a gentle buzz of Honey bees (Apis mellifera) around several shrubs; the intoxicating aroma enticing them to feed on the nectar and collect pollen.

A Honeybee enjoying a Mahonia japonica.
A Sarcococca confusa visted by a Honeybee.

Lots of Buff-tailed bumblebee (Bombus terrestris) queens emerged too, taking advantage of all the crocuses and heathers currently in bloom.

The diminutive flowers of Heathers are perfect for the short tongues of Buff-tailed bumblebees.
A Buff-tailed bumblebee asleep in a crocus, presumably exhausted from a days foraging.

Another shrub that started to put on a show were Camellias. Although these are beautiful, they don’t appear to entice wildlife to them.

Frosts can quickly turn flowers brown, however no damage occurs to the plant as a whole.

Wildflower seedlings started too pop up in gardens, although not every seed requires soil. On a weekend walk I saw vivipary in action. Vivipary is the germination of seeds while they are still inside the seedhead rather than when they fall to the ground.

Vivipary occuring within a Teasel (Dipsacus).

The next tree that has begun to bloom is the blackthorn. Buds and flowers appear before leaves unfurl. This is the opposite to Hawthorn which also blossoms slightly later in the year.

Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa) have hermaphrodite flowers that bloom in March and April. The white blossom is a joyful sight in early spring.

Blackthorn are good trees for for wildlife, the flowers providing nectar and pollen for bees at this time of year. The leaves too are a food source for caterpillars of several moths, including the Magpie (Abraxas grossularia), Swallow-tailed (Ourapteryx sambucaria) and Yellow-tailed (Euproctis similis); plus caterpillars of the Black hairstreak (Satyrium pruni) and Brown hairstreak (Thecla betulae) butterflies also feed on the Blackthorn foliage. These trees also feed birds as they feast on the sloes and any hiding insects throughout autumn and winter. Their dense canopy even make great places to nest amongst.

Blackthorn wood, once associated with wands of witches, is used for walking sticks and tool handles because it is hard wearing.

Traditional remedies using blackthorn bark, blossom and sloes were made to aid digestion and rhumatism as well as cleanse the blood. These days sloes are used to flavour gin as well as make wines and preserves.

The trees are under treat from blossom wilt due fungal diseases, as with other fruit trees. They can also get ‘pocket plum’ if infected by the Taphrina pruni fungus which produces galls and causes the sloes to remain small and shriveled.

While many things were eager to get going last week, not everything wanted to wake up. It was sweet to notice a few Seven-spot ladybird (Coccinella septempunctata) still hiding away.

One ladybird tucked up within some poppy foliage.
Another trying to hide inside the stem of a climber.

I can appreciate their wanting to cosy up for a while longer, it’s often how I feel when my alarm goes off.

Posted in nature

🎵It’s Beginning…

… to look a lot like springtime, everywhere you go. 🎶

There are lots of early flowering plants blooming at the moment; spring is definitely in the air.

Birdseye speedwell (Veronica persica)
Crocus tommasinianus
Anemone blanda
Lesser celandine (Ficaria verna)
Hellebores, Crocus tommasinianus, Iris reticulata and Winter aconites (Eranthis hyemalis)
Tete-a-tete and Muscari
Iris unguicularis
Posted in nature

Silver Beauties

The Silver birch (Betula pendula) is from the Betulaceae family, just like Hazel (Corylus) and Alder (Alnus), which also have flowers in the form of catkins (see my previous two posts A Snowy Adventure and The Birds and the Trees).

At the moment only the immature male catkins are visible (as they have been since autumn) dangling at the end of tree shoots.

Silhouette of male catkins on the ends of high branches.

Female Catkins develop after the leaves unfurl in spring. They face upwards, are bright green and smaller than the male ones; flowering between April and May. Unlike the fertilized Alder catkins these do not become woody and remain on the tree for seeds to disperse from there. Instead seed dispersal occurs as the female catkins disintegrate and are carried away by the wind as they fall from the tree.

The paper like white bark of the Birch sheds to uncover newer, cleaner bark underneath; plus dark diamond shaped fissures develop as the tree ages.

Fissures developing on the trunk of a Silver birch from my local woodland park.

Two birch trees are native to the UK, the other is the Downy birch (Betula pubescens). It is possible for these to hybridize with one another however individually they can be differentiated. The Downy birch has hairy, single-toothed leaves and hairy shoots (which is how it gets its name); plus the leaf base is rounder. The leaves of the Silver birch are more angular, double toothed around the edges and hairless (the shoots are also hairless). The Downy birch also prefers damper soil than the Silver birch but both are naturally found in woodlands.

The Silver and Downy Birches have open canopies allowing flowers such as violets (Viola), Primrose (Primula vulgaris), Bluebells (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) and Wood anemone (Anemone nemorosa) to florish beneath them. Several fungi are linked with Birch trees too, such as Fly agaric (Amanita muscaria), Woolly milk cap (Lactarius torminosus), Birch milk cap (Lactarius tabidus), Birch brittlegill (Russula betularum), Birch knight (Tricholoma fulvum) and the Birch polypore (Fomitopsis betulina).

These trees can support over 300 insect species. They are a good food source for the caterpillars of Angle-shades (Phlogophora meticulosa), Buff tip (Phalera bucephala), Pebble hook-tip (Drepana falcataria), and Kentish glory (Endromis versicolora) moths. Several Bird species make use of these trees including woodpeckers (Picidae), which nest in the trunks, along with Siskins (Spinus spinus), Greenfinch (Chloris chloris) and Redpolls (Acanthis) that feed on the seeds.

Uses for Birch trees include the manufacture of furniture, handles and toys as well as the process of tanning leather.

In times gone by it was used to make bobbins, spools and reels for the Lancashire cotton industry as well. To the Celts Birches symbolised purity, renewal and love. Later on brooms were made using birch twigs in order to clean rooms. In Finland they are the national tree.

There are several threats to Birch trees, two fungal pathogens (Marssonina betulae and Anisogramma virgultorum) which can cause Birch dieback and eventual death. Bronze birch borer (Agrilus anxius) can also attack native trees.
More information on both can be found on the Forest research website, see the links Birch dieback and Bronze birch borer.

Posted in nature

The Birds and the Trees

On the 31st January, I undertook the RSPBs Big Garden bird watch. Most birds, I’d normally see, were clearly hiding but I did notice some within the hour. Those birds I saw were; 1 Carrion crow (Corvus corone), 2 Robins (Erithacus rubecula), 1 Coal tit (Periparus ater), 1 Blackbird (Turdus merula) and 2 Mistle thrush (Turdus viscivorus). I enjoy taking part in this citizen science project each year; it’s interesting to see how the results differ each time.

Due to the frozen ground last week, I was still able to go for my regular exercise in the local woodland park. Various tree species were waking up from their winter sleep. Beech (Fagus) and Oak (Quercus) had started budding while others were developing catkins.

Last years leaves and new buds on a Beech tree.
Old Oak leaves alongside new buds.

As well as the Hazel (Corylus avellana) other trees had catkins hanging from them too. Hazel catkins are the earliest to flower in the year, from January to March (see my previous post A Snowy Adventure).

Then the Alder (Alnus glutinosa) is the next tree to bloom with both male and female catkins. The male catkins are longer than the female ones which flower from February to March. Also hanging from the Alder trees were some small dark brown shapes. These woody cone-like fruit develop from the previous seasons fertilised female catkins; these can remain on the tree (even when the seeds have been shed) well into the following year alongside the newly formed catkins. I also noticed leaf buds growing on the trees last week too. When the buds burst, I shall update the Woodland trust Nature’s calendar with my findings.

Unfortunately I was unable to capture decent photos on location so I collected part of a fallen branch to take home.

One small female catkin above a group of larger male catkins. On the tree (before fertilisation when they develop into the rounder, woody fruit) the female catkins point upwards while the male ones hang down.
A magnified view of two unfertilised female catkins.
A leaf bud with one of last years fertilised female catkins.
A magnified view of the Alder tree seeds that had remained in last seasons female catkin.

I find Alder trees fascinating and the rough, fissured bark beautiful.

Alder are native to Britain and found on wet land, next to water or in marshes and woodlands. They naturally thrive in moist conditions although can also grow in drier areas such as the edges of mixed woodland. Alder wood is durable when wet and actually becomes stronger rather than rot when submerged in water; a characteristic that makes them useful in flood mitigation, boat building, sluice gates, and even the construction of Venice which is mostly built on Alder piles. Alder wood is also used in the creation of charcoal, gunpowder and making clogs.

The pale wood turns a deep orange colour at the point at which it’s cut (while the rest of the wood remains pale); leading to a superstition, in Ireland, that it was bad luck to walk past an Alder tree on your travels. However, traditionally alder branches were also taken into houses to prevent Woodworm. Alder wood is particularly liked by various species of beetle larvae (collectively referred to as Woodworm). It is hoped that the beetles will lay eggs in the Alder rather than the furniture or fixtures; the branches once infested can then be removed.

There is also a traditional use for Alder flowers as a green dye; believed to be used as camouflage by outlaws like Robin hood and fairies.

For fun, I looked up Alder wands used in the Harry potter series. Only one is mentioned, that owned by Quirinus Quirrell. The wands qualities are described on the Wizarding world website.

The roots of Alder are nitrogen fixers. Nitrogen from the air is fixed into the soil, replenishing the levels and aiding soil fertility, through the bacterium Frankia alni.

As well as improving soil, Alder are great for wildlife too. The seeds are eaten by Redpoll (Acanthis flammea), Siskin (Spinus spinus) and Goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis). The leaves are food for the caterpillars of the Alder kitten (Furcula bicuspis), Pebble hook-tip (Drepana falcataria), Autumn green carpet (Chloroclysta miata) and Blue-bordered carpet (Plemyria rubiginata) moths. Bees visit the catkins for an early source of nectar plus Alders provide habitats for the Checkered skipper (Carterocephalus palaemon) butterfly, Small pearl-bordered fritillary (Boloria selene) butterfly, some species of Crane fly, Otters (which create nests amongst the roots) along with mosses, lichens and fungi that like damp conditions.

However, these trees are also threatened through infection by the Phytophthora fungus (together with some other broadleaf tree species). In Alder this disease is referred to as Alder dieback and eventually causes the death of any infected tree. For more information see the Forest research website. There aren’t many Alders in my local woodland park compared to other tree species so it would be sad to see them disappear. Given my newly acquired knowledge I will keep a special lookout for any ill health in these trees; thankfully no infection is being exhibited at the moment.