Saturday, January 31, 2015


A limited with connection opportunities at the moment as about to venture into the wilds of Scotland. 
Today is the last of the first month and it hasn't been too difficult to find a new species each day. Finding the time to write the posts is a little harder, especially when one gets drawn in to the detail. Thirty-one species isn't going to impress anyone. I'm not entirely confident I'll manage to post over the next few days but will try to find some local species.
This is Scruff - our friends' dog. And he is representative of Canis lupus ssp. familiaris. Those of you with a smattering of the old language will notice that dogs are in fact a subspecies of wolf. Eagle-eyed antipodean friends might notice someone they know in the background. 

Friday, January 30, 2015

Lecanora campestris

This is a common lichen on brick walls. Again, you have to zoom in to appreciate the tiny apothecia.
This is Leconora campestris. I found it round the corner where it was thriving, with lots of individuals.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Great Reedmace or Bulrush?

Bulrush, I hear you cry. As in 'Moses in the Bulrushes', the painting by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema?
It is a popular belief that up until the time of this painting the common name for this plant, Typha latifolia, was Great Reedmace, but that his popular painting misidentified them as Bulrush and everyone subsequently jumped on the bandwagon.

This is not true of course, as it was being referred to as bulrush long before Sir Lawrence was born. Furthermore, he actually called his painting 'The Finding of Moses'. The term 'bulrush' actually comes from the old English word for papyrus, as in Cyperus papyrus, which is what Moses' floating cradle would most likely have been
made of and found amidst.

The BSBI hedges its bets by saying that bulrush and reedmace are both acceptable as common names for Typha latifolia. It belongs to the angiosperm or Magnoliophyta division of the plant kingdom (cf. gymnosperms) - in other words it produces seeds that are enclosed and contain endosperm (food for the developing seedling). It is a monocotyledon (cf. dicotyledon) which means when the seed develops the shoot only has one leaf. Finally, it is in the order Poales, which contains all the grasses, sedges and bromeliads.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Mute Swan

Today's species is another familiar one: the mute swan or Cygnus olor. It is the commonest swan in the UK and named because compared to the other swans (whooper and bewicks) it isn't as 'vocal'. The black swan of Australia is it's closest relative, phylogenetically speaking. 
The monarch 'owns' all 'unmarked' swans, though this right was extended to the Dyers' and Vintners' Companies in the fifteenth century.
The knob at the top of the bill swells during the breeding season on males only, helping to tell them apart. The males are called cobs. They generally pair off and stick together for life, consequently they are a symbol of fidelity. The most famous mute swan is the 'ugly duckling' in the story by Hans Christian Andersen.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015


I noticed some of the crocuses/croci were out last week and couldn't help thinking that they were rather early. I think this one is Crocus chrysanthus or golden crocus.
Nothing much to say about this species other than it is one which has been bred by humans to select various characteristics for their aesthetic value. And to be fair, not a bad job!
I used to think that they were bulbs, like daffodils, but in fact they are corms, which are swollen stem bases. Each year a new corm develops atop the old one.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Winter Heliotrope

This stuff is an imposter from south, brought over by nineteenth century gardeners as ground cover. As you can see from the picture it does what it was intended to do, and nothing else is growing where it has spread. It is now naturalised throughout the UK, apart from northern Scotland. Once established it's a bugger to eradicate.
The plant is dioecious, but only the male plant is found in this country. How does it managed to spread? It is found largely along roadways (as in this example, around the corner from our house) or water courses. Spread is through the dumping of garden waste and moving of earth containing the rhizomes. These survive mutilation and grow into new plants. It's called winter heliotrope or Petasites fragrans and the flowers smell of vanilla when out between November and early March. The rest of the time just the kidney-shaped leaves are seen, which people can confuse with butterbur or coltsfoot. As you may have discerned from the flowers, it's a member of the Asteraceae family, just like the daisy and dandelion.

Sunday, January 25, 2015


We popped into the Arundel Wildfowl and Wetland place en route to Chichester today and were dismayed to discover that our Family membership didn't allow us all in as it only covers two adults and two children 16 years old or under. So we had to fork out £9.95 for our eldest, which is the rather daunting student rate. As Matty pointed out: it's really somewhere only the affluent middle-classes would go. Fair enough. It's also a charity doing good work, my wife chipped in. So we paid up, plus some for feed, and had a lovely couple of hours pootling around the reserve.
There were of course some wonderful rarities, but how could one not start with the ubiquitous mallard: Anas platyrhynchos. The name 'mallard' is thought to come from various Old languages, meaning 'drake duck' but it's not very clear. The binomial species name means 'broad/flat nosed'.

And it really is found all over the place, barring Antarctica. It is in the Anseriformes Order and the Anatidae family. This latter contains most of our ducks, geese and swans - although the magpie goose, which turns up in huge numbers at Kakadu National Park in Australia's Northern Territory, belongs to a different family.
Numbers in the UK are swelled by a few winter migrants from Scandinavia and central Europe, but less so than in the past. They swell numbers by around 3%.
Mallard males have a bit of a bad reputation on account of their tendency to commit gang rape. Groups of unpaired males will sometimes pick out an unpaired female, or even another male, chase it until weakened and then copulate with it in turn. There is even a report of homosexual necrophilia, the submission of which won the scientist an Ig Noble prize.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Sand-hill Screw Moss

It is the Big Garden Birdwatch weekend and I had a very enjoyable hour watching the avian shenanigans. In particular the territorial challenge by a robin. It perched in front of the current incumbent and raised its head up to show just how big and red (orange) its breast was, and then swayed slowly from side to side as if to say "Yeh, do you want a bit of it?". Our man did, and after watching for a while, chased him round the bushes. It all took place beneath the bird feeders which I suspect is the centre of the territory.
A total of 13 species noted, with chaffinch and blue tit topping the table with maximum counts of five a piece.
I thought I'd pop a bryophyte in today, just to add an example from another major taxon. This gorgeous beauty is Sand-hill Screw-moss (Syntrichia ruraliformis) and it was growing just next to the Cladonia ciliata var tenuis lichen (15th January) on Oxwich dunes. Click on the photo to enlarge it and really appreciate the details.

Friday, January 23, 2015


One of our prettiest birds - the goldfinch, Carduelis carduelis britannica. The latin name stems from its predilection for thistle seed, carduus being the Latin for thistle. They also, as one was doing this morning, eat the seeds from teasel (see January 3rd).
Frequently kept in the past as a cage bird because of its stunning appearance and pleasant song. It is also associated with Christ's passion in Christian symbolism because of the thistle/crown of thorns connection and the red around its face.
Donna Tart's Pulitzer prize-winning book was called The Goldfinch because of the role Carel Fabritius's 1654 painting of the same title plays in the plot. Hieronymus Bosch also includes one in his fabulous tryptich The Garden of Earthly Delights.
They often hang around in flocks in the autumn and winter, visiting thistles in field edges and rough ground. They have fairly distinctive calls in flight:

The collective name for them is a charm, which seems quite appropriate given their appearance. However I learnt from Mark Cocker's excellent Birds Britannica that the original word was the Old English c'irm meaning the tinkling sounds made by flocks in flight.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Hart's Tongue Fern

The first pteridophyte is one of the commonest in this country: hart's tongue fern or Asplenium scolopendrium. This one is in the garden providing a magnificent green luminosity to one of the darker corners.
Just to get the plant kingdom a bit clearer in my head: it is divided into green algae and the land plants (Embryophytes). The latter are subdivided into the non-vascular land plants (Bryophytes - essentially the mosses, hornworts and liverworts); vascular plants (Tracheophytes - mostly ferns and horsetails (Pteridophyta) and clubmosses); and seed plants (Spermatophytes - mostly the conifers (Pinophyta) and flowering plants (Magnoliophyta)). So hart's tongue is a pteridophyte (Division), and in this, it belongs to the Polypoliopsida (Class). Its order is the Polypodiales which contains around 80% of ferns. The genus belongs to the family Aspleniaceae, the only other genus being the Hymenasplenium. There are around 700 species and they are often referred to by their common name: the spleenworts (from the doctrine of signatures which held that the sori looked somewhat spleenish! (wort is just an old English word for plant.))
Apparently the pattern of the sori is reminiscent of centipede's legs and the name scolopendrium derives from the Latin for centipede - weird!

Wednesday, January 21, 2015


Very long day at the office today so this will be a shit post. However, it will be a post.
Poor pic of yes, another evergreen! This time it's one of the three native conifers: yew, or Taxus baccata
It is very shade tolerant and very poisonous. There is a product derived from yew that was developed as a chemotherapy drug which is now found impregnated on metal stents that are used to re-open arteries in the heart that have been narrowed by atherosclerosis. The drug slows the growth of cells colonising the stent to reduce the likelihood of early re-stenosis. 
I did read somewhere that the flesh of the attractive red fruits (called arils) can be eaten, so long as you don't ingest the seed, but I think I'd have to be pretty desperate to try this out. One vernacular term for them is snotty-gogs.
It is a fascinating species and I will write more tomorrow. Suffice to say that the oldest surviving wooden artefact is made from yew and estimated to be about 250,000 years old! The tree with the largest girth in Britain is a yew estimated to be between 2000-3000 years old (although some say 'only' 1500 years old). Amazing. 

Okay, so here's the rest, added on 23rd January:
The artefact is a spear head found at Clacton in Essex! That is extraordinarily old. Pre-dating several glaciations. Knowing that the last glaciation ice sheets retreated from Britain around 12,000 years ago puts that in perspective.
Yew-related gossip includes the one about Pontius Pilate having played under the Fortingall Yew (the one mentioned above as being incredibly old - Mabey quotes 2000 - 9000 years!) as a child when his father was reputedly stationed in Scotland as a legionary.
But the genuine fascination with yew in this country (and to some extent northern France) is its association with churchyards. No one really knows the answer to this. There are around 500 churchyards with yews at least as old as the church itself. The distribution of yews in churchyards correlates with the distribution of yews in the wild. 
It was said that Edward I passed a law preventing rectors felling trees in the graveyard as a means of protecting yews for the purpose of harvesting for longbows. However longbows are fashioned from the trunk not the boughs so you'd have to fell the tree to use them. Furthermore most of the yew used for longbows (and it was far from the best wood for the purpose) was imported from Spain and Italy. 
Another theory is that churches used yew branches as a substitute for palms on Palm Sunday, which certainly is known to have occurred. Another, that churches were often built on pagan sites which in turn were positioned near yew trees which were venerated for reasons forgotten by the Druids. It is interesting to note that until the Middle Ages people generally didn't plant trees, suggesting that churches must have already had yew trees in their grounds when they were built.
Ageing a yew tree is basically impossible. After about 400 years they start becoming hollow and lose any heartwood that could be radioisotope dated. They also go into prolonged periods of dormancy when they more or less stop putting on girth. One tree increased its girth from 30 feet to 30 feet and 9 inches in 250 years!
The name 'yew' is derived from one of the oldest of the Celtic tree names: iw

Tuesday, January 20, 2015


Another evergreen from the garden and no doubt familiar to most: Ilex aquifolium or holly. Ilex is the only living genus in the family Aquifoliaceae and contains around 400 species in the temperate and sub-tropical zones. They aren't all evergreen trees: some are creepers, some shrubs and others deciduous trees.
Holly is dioecious and thinking about it, I don't recall ever noticing the flowers, male or female, which is weird (although they are described as being inconspicuous!) They apparently appear from May to August but perhaps only when the plant reaches a certain age?
The genus name, Ilex, actually comes from the classical latin name for the holm oak, Quercus ilex, presumably because the leaves bear a resemblance and they're both evergreen. 
The berries (more correctly called drupes) are poisonous, especially to children who can die after ingesting a mere twenty or so.
Like gorse, holly was used as forage for livestock in the winter, sometimes being crushed in the same manner to make it more palatable. It's leaves have more calories per unit weight than any other forage plant in this country.
In Mr Mabey's book there are several pages relating to holly usages and lore. One that caught my eye relates how holly was often used in sea defences and that Holmstone, 'a unique wood of stunted hollies growing on the shingle beach at Dungeness', was documented as early as the eighth century! I visit Dungeness from time to time and have made a note to find Holmstone on my next visit.
As for deliberate planting, it is, or was, a commonly used boundary marker. One walker notes that they often grow near stiles, perhaps aiding the walker in finding the line to take in order that the true path might be followed. However, there are more prosaic explanations for their persistence in hedgerows, such as their usefulness as sightlines for winter ploughing, or the general superstition that felling a holly tree was bad luck. 
In East Sussex they are left proud of the hedges to discourage the transit of witches, who of course run along the tops of hedges to get from one place to another when their brooms are broken.
These days the only holly lore most people know relates to the fact that Harry Potter's wand was made from Ilex aquifolium (with, of course, a phoenix feather core!). 

Monday, January 19, 2015


Today’s species is very common and probably overlooked by most of us as a slightly irritating, uninteresting plant that seems to grow everywhere. But there's more to ivy than meets the unobservant eye. 
Ivy is the only species of the Araliaceae family found naturalised in the British Isles and two subspecies exist: Hedera helix ssp helix which is shown here and is the commoner of the two; and H. h. ssp hibernica which is known as atlantic ivy. The latter, as the name suggests, is the prevalent subspecies in Ireland and in the west and south-west of Britain. It differs in having slightly larger leaves which are less deeply palmate with yellowish hairs (as opposed to whitish) on the underside.
Ivy does a weird thing: the leaves of young, non-flowering stems are different to those on the mature flowering shoots. The latter 'lose' their lobes, becoming simple oval or elliptic and fooling the unwary into thinking it must be a different species. 
Ivy flowers late in the year, from September to December, with heavily scented and nectared flowers with five yellow-green petals in umbels at the topmost part of the plant where there is plenty of light. This makes it a star attraction for many insects at a time when few other food plants are available. 
Ivy is also important as it provides year-round cover for nesting and roosting birds and insects on account of its evergreen nature.
In this country it is generally thought that ivy doesn't harm a tree if it
climbs up and around it. This is at odds with one's impression when finding an 'ivy tod'. These are trees which are so smothered in ivy that it appears that there never was anything but ivy growing. They occur when the scaffold tree dies, leaving a self-supporting ivy plant masquerading as a tree in its own right.
There is a huge amount of folklore about ivy and it has one of the longer entries in Richard Mabey's fabulous Flora Britannica.     

Sunday, January 18, 2015


This elegant visitor is Frau Blackcap (Sylvia atricapilla). Typically the name refers to the male of the species, a reflection perhaps of all those men of science in days of yore, all furiously collecting and cataloguing. (Not like today, eh?!) The lady has a more attractive reddish brown cap. The name Sylvia refers to its woodland habitat (Silva) and the specific name the ater (black) capillus (hair), the whole meaning a black-haired woodland sprite.

To see one in winter is a relatively recent privilege. All the breeding blackcaps head off the the Mediterranean and North African coasts for the winter, to be replaced by birds from Germany and Austria who began spending the winters here in the 1940s. The last UK Bird Atlas (2007- 2011) found wintering blackcaps present in 15% of tetrads in Sussex, largely in gardens at bird-feeders. 

It's a cunning plan as it saves a much longer migration and means they can get back to the breeding grounds before the longer distance migrants, enabling them to snaffle the finest territories. Consequently they tend to only breed with other birds following the same migration strategy. 

Blackcaps in general exhibit 'leap frog' migration. Those furthest north migrate furthest south, with the ones nearest the Mediterranean barely bothering to pack their bags. One of the biggest dangers en route is being trapped by a human. It has been estimated that around 900 million migrating birds are taken, ostensibly for food, every year, even though it is against the law in the European Union. Malta, Cyprus and Tuscany are the worst culprits. 

Despite the carnage Blackcap numbers are increasing. This is in stark contrast with many of our migrant species, including the nightingale to which the Blackcap is often compared on account of its beautiful song. Gilbert White got it right when he described it as a 'full, sweet, deep, loud and wild pipe'.

An old name for blackcap was the mock nightingale, but the real thing sounds quite different. The bird most often mistaken for blackcap is its close relative the garden warbler:


Saturday, January 17, 2015


It was cold today. Minus one on the garden thermometer at breakfast time. My son had a hockey match up at Falmer, so we cycled up and whilst the match was on I continued up to Ditchling Beacon. The hail stopped and the sun came out. South, over the channel, an enormous nimbus edged eastwards unloading its cargo into the sea. And there was today's flower in a spiky bush: Ulex europaeus, more commonly known as gorse.
To me the coconut scent of gorse on a hot summer day is one of the pleasures of walking in the countryside. I wasn't able to catch its aroma today but was still cheered by the bold yellow flowers. 
There are in fact two other gorse species besides the common one: Dwarf Gorse (U. minor) and Western Gorse (U. gallii). The latter is generally found west of a line joining Dorchester-Nottingham-Edinburgh, apart from some areas on the East Anglian coast. The former is found on acid heaths generally in the area where the latter isn't found. The key difference is that Ulex europaeus has an obvious bracteole, which in the other two is vestigial.
It is a member of the Fabaceae family, better known to many as the legumes or pea family. The flowers in this group are distinctively zygomorphic. Many have root nodules hosting bacteria that can fix nitrogen, making them important agriculturally. 

An older name for gorse is furze, and furze faggots were commonly harvested from the heaths to fire bread ovens. It was also an important fodder plant, sometimes crushed or 'bruised' to make it more palatable. The flowers are edible and used in salads or boiled in water with eggs to colour them. Mr Mabey (see Inspiring books) tells us that 'When gorse is in blossom, kissing's in season' is a saying known throughout Britain. I'm guessing that was put about on account of it flowering virtually year-round.

Friday, January 16, 2015


Look at these bad boys perpetuating the stereotype! Note the raised crown feathers in the third picture just before he loses his temper. (I think it's a chap. If you look closely at the base of the bill it is light blue-grey. In ladies it's just paler than the rest of the bill. More obvious perhaps in the bird that gets attacked.)
Starlings, Sturnus vulgaris, are an apparently common bird which is on the British Red List, meaning that it is of greatest conservation concern. The reason is a population decline between 1966 and 2004 of around 80%. That seems an astonishing statistic, but it is borne out in other European countries, making it a Species of European Conservation Concern or SPEC. 
As most people know, the collective noun for starlings is a murmuration. Another one is an affliction. Winter flocks can reach enormous proportions and witnessing them coming in to roost is surely one of the great spectacles of nature; up there with watching the lions in the Serengeti. Check out the video below, find out where you nearest monster roost is, and get down there one evening before they disperse for the season.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Cladonia ciliata var. tenuis

Cladonia ciliata var. tenuis as I'm sure you are all already well aware. This beautiful lichen was noticed on a walk over Christmas on the dunes behind Oxwich bay on Gower in south Wales. I was born on Gower and grew up in Swansea where my parents still reside. It was where the tiny spores of natural history interest first settled, shed by people like Dr Michael Isaac, a Scout leader who happened to be an academic marine biologist. I well recall a 'night hike' under a full moon along the south coast of Gower peninsular 

(incidentally, Gower was the first Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty to be so designated) and seeing Noctiluca scintillans for the first time (also at Oxwich). It was astonishing. I have only seen it once since then, but never as florid. Michael knew immediately all about it and I've remembered the name of this funny little marine organism ever since.

I've made the photo large so you can appreciate better its amazing appearance. How many lichens can you name? Funny really as they're much more visible than even blue tits. The problem is that to appreciate many of them you really need to get up close and personal, preferably with a x10 optical device such as a hand lens

Lichens are on my 'to do' list. I have started by borrowing a book by William Purvis called, simply enough, 'Lichens'. (It's published by the Natural History Museum.) Mr Purvis is not to be trifled with when it comes to matters lichenous and this book is a nicely pitched distillation of a lifetime of accrued expertise, pitched at a level commensurate with O-level biology. 

They are a fascinating group because they are made up to more than one organism: usually a fungus, or mycobiont, and an algae, or photobiont. The latter can be green algae, yellow-green algae or cyanobacteria which are invariably 'trapped' by the fungal partner. The lichen is known by the name of the fungal partner. 

The exact nature of the relationship between the fungus and the other partner is still discussed. Mostly the fungus is only found existing as a lichen, although some have been grown in laboratories without their photobiont partners. When this is achieved it bears no resemblance to the lichen, commonly appearing as a mouldy amorphous mass.

I have Simon Davey to thank for the identification (see his blog - Inspired by Ecology). The Cladonia genus is sometimes referred to as the reindeer lichens as they are widespread in the arctic tundra where they form a significant percentage of the diet of reindeer.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Great Tit

I thought it only right to follow the blue tit with its close relative and another familiar friend, the great tit or Parus major. Not the best photo but you get the idea. (Special prize for identifying the other bird on the feeder!)
They are not quite as common as blue tits, but more prolific breeders, with most pairs raising two broods every year and laying larger clutches (around ten eggs). Unlike the blue tit they are visibly dimorphic to humans, the males having an unbroken black band down the middle of the abdomen with an obvious broadening, whereas the females have a narrower band which is often discontinuous lower down.

There are fourteen recognised subspecies of great tit, and the one in Britain is Parus major newtoni. The nominate subspecies is (of course) Parus major major (cf. 'Catch 22') as this was the one first described when the species was identified. P. m. newtoni had a broader stripe than P. m. major

The definition of what the terms subspecies and races are are very particular and yet somehow also rather vague. At the end of the day is a matter of arbitration by a group of 'experts'. And the situation is even more complicated in botany where there exists further divisions into strains and forms. Mr Bryson refers to the tendency of scientists to be 'splitters' or 'lumpers' (see book list) and I must say that for the generalist amateur, lumpishness is very much the order of the day (excuse the pun).

Now great tits do have one of the more recognisable calls of our common birds, classically described as "tea-cher" and often repeated. But they are notorious for the variety of calls and songs in their repertoire.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Blue Tit

This little angel will be familiar to most in the British Isles: a Eurasian blue tit or Cyanistes caeruleus. I was going to write Parus caeruleus, but the British Ornithologists Union treats Cyanistes as a separate genus, and not just a sub-genus of Parus. And rightly so, I hear you cry, because the mitochondrial DNA cytochrome B sequence in Cyanistes is completely different to that found in other tits found in Parus!

Well I'm glad we've cleared that little taxonomical peccadillo up.

I think I mentioned before that although they appear to lack sexual dimorphism, under ultraviolet light the males have brighter blue crowns.

They are the species most likely to set up home in your nest box (assuming it is one with an appropriate sized hole in the front and located in a suitable location) and if they do, and especially if you have one of those little cameras in the box so you can observe the goings-on, you'll find they temporarily become part of the family. It is extraordinary to see how hard the parents have to work to feed their chicks. Each chick needs around a hundred caterpillars every day. That often equates to parents returning every ninety seconds with another morsel. By the time fledging occurs the parents look proper knackered!

Last year we were lucky enough to catch the moment when the nippers fledged. A couple didn't make it to the bushes where mum and dad were waiting so we helped them get there before one of the local Felae cati turned up. (Actually how do you write binomials in the plural? I have tried to find out but so far without confident success.)

Blue tits made a bit of a media splash when they demonstrated cultutural transmission of learning to other tit species by 'passing on' the knowledge that if you pecked through the foil top of a milk bottle there was cream to be had. 

How does that work then? In evolutionary terms it can't be that the blue tits are giving the knowledge altruistically to their close relatives. It must be more that organisms are evolved to pick up clues and signals relating to food availability, in the same was as they are evolved to chose mates to maximise breeding success?

There are around 3.5 million breeding pairs according to the BTO. The average lifespan is only around 2 years but a lot don't survive beyond the first few weeks when they are most vulnerable to predation. The oldest recorded blue tit was more than eleven years old.

Now that I've discovered how to embed sound clips from xeno-canto (about which I was very excited and ever so slightly cocky) I feel duty bound to include them whenever appropriate.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Great Spotted Woodpecker


Always a pleasure to see one of the woodpeckers, especially at close quarters. They're usually spotted (geddit?) in flight, with their characteristic flight pattern of a few wing beats, then stop with wings closed for a second before beating the wings a few more times and closing them again, and repeat, giving them an undulating flight path.
This chap has become something of a regular on the suet nibbles feeder. A lady friend occasionally pops by but I've no idea if they're together. 
You can tell it's a male great spotted woodpecker, Dendrocopos major, because of the red patch at the back of the head / nape of the neck which the female lacks. Unlike their diminutive cousin, the lesser spotted woodpecker (which used to be Dendrocopos minor but which has recently been relocated and is now known as Picoides minor), the greater spotted are doing well.

They are best known as a result of their drumming when establishing territories. Despite their striking appearance they're actually rather reclusive and difficult to see, so if you're keen to find them it's best to learn their distinctive calls and flight pattern. The drumming tends to be short, only 4 or 5 seconds long, tailing off at the end, whereas the lesser spotted drums for longer and more persistently: the opposite of what you might expect.

Sunday, January 11, 2015


To be honest, this was taken in Swansea not Sussex. However, it was taken by my son on Christmas day, so at least it's temporally close to the mark.
And what is it? Well it's easy to give the common names: dandelion, wet-the-bed, pissy beds, jack-piss-the-bed, old man's clock, peasant's clock, swine's snout. But the binomial? 

That's a different matter, because identification at the species level is fraught with difficulty. 

This is partly due to close similarity between species, and partly due to a lack of consensus as to how many species there are and which ones count as species. So the common way of dealing with this is to refer to your average dandelion as Taraxacum agg. or belonging to the Taraxacum aggregation. 

So why the references to urination and why the taxonomical complexity?

Dandelions have been an important food and medicine source wherever they're found. The leaves are eaten in salads or blanched and used like spinach. They are markedly dentate or toothed, from whence their commonest name derives: dents de lion. The roots are used in drinks like dandelion and burdock, root beer and roasted and ground to make a caffeine-free coffee substitute. The roots have the unfortunate side-effect of inducing diuresis - the production of urine.

They are in the same family, Asteraceae, as our friend the daisy, but unlike daisy, they can reproduce asexually by apomixis. This results in offspring genetically identical to the parent. Such goings-on results in lots of 'microspecies' which are genetically unique, but whose physical characteristics are subtly different. Hence the difficulty in the field. About 235 microspecies have been identified in the British Isles. Telling them apart is an arcane business and something of a dark art, with only a handful of grand-masters like John Richards, Professor of Botany at the University of Newcastle.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Grey Squirrel

Cute little darling or tree rat?

Depends on your attitude to introduced species or your fondness of our indigenous red squirrel Sciurus vulgaris. 

Eastern grey squirrels, Sciurus carolinensis, were introduced from the Eastern USA on several occasions from 1876 to 1929 (Oliver Rackham - The History of the Countryside). Up until that time the red squirrel was the only one you'd have come across. I would be confident to bet that fewer than 1% of people have seen a red squirrel in the wild in the last ten years.

They are in the same phylum and class as us (mammals) but a different order: Rodentia. The family is Sciuridae which contains about 250 species, and the name comes from the ancient greek meaning 'shadow tailed'.

Under English law, if a grey squirrel is trapped it may not be released but must be 'humanely destroyed'. The reasons for the extirpation of the red by the grey are still debated. The grey is more omnivorous than the red, which means it is less likely to suffer food shortages. It is also a carrier of a virus which makes the red squirrels very poorly. It is bigger than the red and could beat it in paw-to-paw combat. But there are anomalies in its spread that mean there must be other ecological mechanisms involved. 

The other interesting thing about squirrels is that they are masters of deception. They cache several thousand items of food each season, usually by burying in the ground. However, if they are being 'watched' by a rival (of the same species or another after the same foodstuff) they will pretend to bury it, whilst in fact hiding it in their mouths and burying it later out of sight of the rival. Or if the rival is unable to climb trees, they will hide it up in a tree. This behaviour begs questions about consciousness and the theory of mind. Discuss.

The large nests that they build in trees are called dreys.

Friday, January 09, 2015

Buff-tailed bumblebee

In order to make up from some rather lazy posting of organisms from far flung times, this one's right up to date. Amazingly this beauty bashed into my kitchen window this morning as I was re-fuelling the wine rack. 
There was a slight delay as the penny dropped: what on earth was a bumblebee doing out at this time of the year and in weather like this. (The sunny spell was a freak event in a long period of either cold or wild and milder weather. It is now wild and mild outside with gale force winds.)
I am no expert on bumblebees but I think this is Bombus terrestris. The only concern is that the stripe on the thorax is a little orangey. I posted it on iSpot hoping for confirmation, but none as yet.

There's something endearing about bumblebees that spiders and flies just don't have. I think it's their ridiculous proportions and their hairy/furry appearance. Denuded of hair and seen in their chitinous wherewithal they'd create a quite different reaction. 

They used to be called humble-bees, quite commonly, up until around the first world war, as well as bumblebees. Both are very old names, with the former recorded in the fifteenth century and the latter in the sixteenth. Then, for no discernible reason, the use of humble-bee just gradually tailed off. Since the second world war only bumblebee has been used as the common moniker. Weird.

Humble-bees are in the phylum Arthropoda, the class Insecta and the order Hymenoptera. It is one of the largest orders, with over 150,000 species of ant, bee, wasp and sawfly described. The name refers to their membrane wings (from the Greek). The family is the Apidae, which basically contains all the bee-like, waspy type creatures. Important pollinators all (when not being discombobulated by neonicotinoids and the like!). 

The other notable thing about humble-bees is that Uncle Charles (Darwin) cited them in a discussion about the interconnectedness of species. To paraphrase: humble-bees seem to be the only pollinators for some plants; the number of humble-bees is inversely proportional to the number of field mice (which predate the nests); the number of mice is inversely proportional to the number of cats; there are more cats near human habitations; therefore the keeping of cats by humans influences the success of some flower species. A correspondent of his, Mr Newman, had observed more humble-bee nests near to villages and towns and this provoked the ideas. The term 'ecology' wasn't being used at the time.

Another curious thing about humbe-bees is that their eponymous buzzing comes not from the wings beating the air, but from the noise of their flight muscles. The wings beat at around 200 times per second, which is faster than a nerve could repeatedly fire. The muscles actually vibrate after each nerve stimulus, which is not only physiologically necessary, but also much more energy efficient. They can de-couple their muscles from their wings and will use this to bring their body temperatures 'up to steam' before take-off if the ambient temperature is low. 

Thursday, January 08, 2015

Welsh Poppy

Friends from the old country might recognise this as it is Meconopsis cambrica or Welsh Poppy. 
I realise in putting this in that it is not currently out there, around us, even in its vegetative form, but as I haven't really set out any rules about this blog I haven't, in the strictest sense, transgressed any. 
Having said that, my intention was to only include things that I have seen and identified, ideally within a reasonable temporal window of posting.
Today's posting demonstrates the flexibility of the latter stipulation. 
Another 'rule' I hoped to obey was that any images used would be my own. Again, I'm not sure how long I'd be able to keep to such a restriction. 
However, I think I can pin these colours to the mast: I will only post things I've seen myself in the British Isles. That should be more than ample organisms for the rest of my lifetime!
So apologies for breaking the temporal rule, for these beauties are out in May at the earliest. 
There is a story behind these. They hark from Aberdulais Falls in the Neath Valley. We visited them on the way to visiting my parents in Swansea, and there they were, disporting themselves in the glade. I shook some seeds from a few obliging flowerheads and when we got back to our house in Nunhead (south London) scattered them in the pocket handkerchief back garden. 
They grew well and when we moved to Lewes I again raided the seed pods. Again they grew and are now a regular feature amongst the brickwork around our front door, in a shady, reasonably damp, north east facing spot. 
Old Carl had them down as Papaver, but some clever clogs noticed that the styles were different from the other known Papaver species at the time and promptly invented the Meconopsis genus. Subsequently various other plants with similar flower structure were found and added to the genus, only for the cleverer cloggier genetics people to come along and point out that it had much more in keeping, genetically, with the Papavers after all! 
Slightly awkward as it is the 'type' species for the genus. 

Wednesday, January 07, 2015


Primula vulgaris will soon be back with us. It's one of the earliest flowers to appear round these parts and always raises a smile the first time I notice them. There's a sunny bank where I turn off the main road on my way to work which looks unprepossessing most of the year, but for a few weeks it is absolutely smothered with primroses.  
Its name derives from medieval latin for 'first rose', but of course it's not a rose, or even in the rose family. It gives its name to Primulaceae, the family it belongs to.
There's something funny about the flowers. They are either thrum or pin
This refers to whether the stamens, which surround the central style, are prominent and appear at the top of the central petal tube or corolla (thrum) or whether they are short and it is the style that holds centre stage (pin). Have a look next time you find some.

This is described as distylus and flax plants also exhibit it. Apparently it's typical of plants that rely predominantly on lepidopteran (moth or butterfly) pollination. Other plants may have three forms and be tristylus. Marvellous!     

Tuesday, January 06, 2015


No prize for identifying this one. Erithacus rubecula might not be its familiar epithet, but that's its current binomial. Carl Linnaeus put it down as Motacilla rubecula, but George Cuvier came along in 1800 and 'created' the Erithacus genus. I guess it was easier for geniuses to create genera in those days. (Apparently Linnaeus is the type specimen for Homo sapiens, which is an interesting aside.)
My Collins guide has our friend the robin down as belonging to the Thrush family, Turdidae, but according to Wikipedia, the sub-family of chats, Saxicolinae, has been relocated with the Muscicapadae, or Old World Flycatchers. 

There are only two others in the genus Erithacus, and they're both found over in Japan.

People often think of robins as friendly because they will come close to you. In fact they're often being aggressively territorial. If it's approaching the breeding season and you turn up to a robin's patch wearing red, you may even be attacked. A friend of ours was quite traumatised by such an experience.

Robins also often sing at night in the presence of unnatural light (there was an interesting article about the effects of artificial light on wildlife in British Wildlife magazine recently). Their song is sometimes mistaken for that of the nightingale because of this, I presume by those who have never heard a nightingale!

Robins are monomorphic. That is, the two sexes cannot be distinguished by appearance. Blue tits were thought to be the same, but apparently their blue heads look different if you can see ultraviolet light. Which they can.

Monday, January 05, 2015


I realise there is more than one species present in this photo, but those of you wanting to ignore the daisy are just being cocky. (But points will be awarded to anyone who'd like to hazard a guess at the others. And we all know what points mean.)
So, Bellis perennis is today's living thing. It's name means 'everlasting beauty'. The English is a corruption of 'day's eye' because it closes its petals at night. In mild winters it can flower all-year round.
It is in the Asterales Order which comprises eleven families. All use inulin as their storage carbohydrate (as opposed to starch).

The two main families in the order are the Asteraceae (25,000 species), for which the daisy is the archetypical species, and the Campanulaceae (2000 species), or bellflowers. The other nine families account for fewer than 500 species. I suppose that suggests evolutionary success for the Asteraceae

In the fourteenth century Mr Chaucer extols the virtues of the daisy in his 'Legend of Good Women'. 

Sunday, January 04, 2015


Felis catus or the domestic cat is today's choice. Start close to home (we do have teasel in the garden) and he happened to be close to hand. He and his twin brother are 16 years old now. That's old for a domestic cat: in the US the mean lifespan is around 12 - 13 years, depending on where you live. Interestingly, feline life -expectancy has increased from fewer than ten years in the 1980s. 
Domestication of wild cats is thought to have occurred with the rise of agriculture in the Middle East and not, as is commonly thought, as part of ancient Egyptian culture.

Although they kill millions of birds in the UK, their impact on total populations of various bird species is still uncertain: the number of cats vs the populations of various species does not suggest a causal link. Having said that, a bell on the cat's collar does reduce its success at taking prey and assuages, to some extent, the conscience of an owner who values local wildlife.

One of the biggest worries in the UK is the effect of interbreeding of feral cats on the Scottish wildcat (Felis silvestris) population, which has been reduced through habitat loss. It is estimated that there are fewer than a hundred remaining in the wild and extinction is extremely likely.

Saturday, January 03, 2015

Common Teasel

Something from the other familiar kingdom today: Dipsacus fullonum or wild teasel or fuller's teasel or common teasel. 
It is in the Order Dipsacales which comprises only two families: the Caprifoliaceae  or honeysuckle family (to which teasel belongs), and the Adoxaceae or Moschatel family, which includes Viburnum and Sambucus or Elder.

This photo was taken in late October on the Isle of Wight.

It is often planted as a winter food for birds like goldfinch in this country, but in the USA some species are invasive and discouraged.

The Latin specific name derives from it's use by fullers, who used to prepare wool. Fulling, tucking and walking the wool are synonyms for the process of washing it and thickening it. The thickening process involved carding, a term which ironically comes from carduus which referred to teasels (and nowadays refers to thistles) which referred to the process of teasing out the wool fibres.

Essentially the plant kingdom is divided into the algae and the land plants. The latter are divided into the Bryophytes and the vascular plants. Bryophytes include the mosses and liverworts; vascular plants are what we mostly think of as plants. 

Around 1.5 million living species have been described. Of these, about 1.25 million are invertebrates with just under a million insects. 300,000 plants and about 60,000 animals. Just to give a rough idea. 10,000 species are discovered each year. Nobody knows how many there might be altogether. 

We seem to know less about life than we do about the physical universe.

Friday, January 02, 2015

Common Pygmy Woodlouse

My species today is a Crustacean Trichoniscus pusillus or the common pygmy woodlouse. 

I suspect you just thought "woodlouse" when you saw the picture, but there are apparently 45 species in the UK. This is one of the 'famous five' which make up the vast majority of those we're likely to come across. 

You can perhaps guess from the photo where I found it? Those are annual growth rings on a log from the wood pile. 

So crustaceans are in the same Kingdom as humans: Animalia. Living things are classified into more and more specific groups, until one arrives at species and sub-species. (This business of classification is called 'taxonomy' and it is a classic scientific strategy for getting our heads around stuff.)

Our Kingdom is divided into 35 Phyla and that's where we separate: our friend here in Arthropoda whereas we're in with the Chordata. Crustacea is in fact a sub-phylum of Arthropoda and there's an awful lot of stuff in there besides woodlice. Moving down through the classification system, woodlice are in the Class called Malacostraca (I'd never heard of it until just now either!) which contains all sorts, from huge spider crabs to tiny shrimps. (There are six classes of crustaceans.)

Next down is Order. Woodlice are in the Isopoda order. From what I can gather, they all look like your common-or-garden woodlouse. If you go down to the bottom of the ocean you can find one about half a metre long.

Imagine finding that in your wood pile.

Thursday, January 01, 2015


This is finally the first post for a blog conceived several years ago.

Why start it now? Because the first of January is a time for resolving to make changes. And because 2015 will, I hope, see significant change in the way I live my life.

The inspiration for this blog is the realisation that Life is truly a miracle. Until recently I gave little thought to how Life began. The story about organic chemicals forming in the primordial soup from basic atomic ingredients as a result of energy input from the sun/lightening/thermal vents is, when considered carefully, inadequate: amino acids may be necessary but not sufficient for life. Replication is necessary. Something that evolution can gain a purchase upon. 

Other stories remain equally unconvincing. 

Life decreases entropy. Energy is required. 

Was there a 'first Life' which replicated until changes in the progeny resulted in sufficient difference for speciation to have occurred?

It is truly mind-boggling. Does it matter if we are never able to answer this question? In the meantime we are responsible for the loss of Life both in species terms as well as in terms of the number of living things. This is something we can understand but seem unable to do much about. We follow a Malthusian curve.

Does it matter?

In the grand scheme of things, not a bit. The average species lasts around two to three million years. More than 99% of species that have existed are extinct. We will have our time and it will pass. Life will continue regardless.

So here's the plan: to observe and make note of a different living species each day. It's a tall order, a challenge, for me to find the time to do this. I am already pessimistic about my chances of success. But again, it doesn't really matter. I shall do what I can.

My first species is Homo sapiens. (see photo - About Me)