Saturday, February 28, 2015

Annual Meadow-grass

A first from this taxon - the Poaceae or grasses. This one is famously ubiquitous and flowers year round. It is Poa annua or Annual Meadow-grass and is evolved to colonise any disturbed ground rapidly. It can grow and set seed in as little as six weeks; a single plant may produce up to 20,000 seeds or as few as 10; seeds may germinate immediately or can remain dormant for a long time; it is native and is naturalized around the world, being found on mountain tops in the tropics. 
The terminology for grasses is bewildering for the beginner and I struggle to key out new species. To give you a flavour here are some excerpts from the entry in BSBI Handbook No.13 - Grasses of the British Isles for P. annua: "...procumbent culms rooting at the nodes;... sheaths compressed and keeled, smooth; ligule ...blunt; blades thin, flat or folded, glabrous, often wrinkled when young, abruptly pointed or hooded at the tip. Panicle ovate or triangular, loose and open or rarely lightly contracted, the branches solitary or paired, rarely 3 together, smooth, spreading or reflexed at maturity. Spikelets ovate or oblong, 3 - 6 flowered; glumes unequal, acute at the tip, the lower lanceolate to narrowly ovate, 1-nerved, the upper elliptic or oblong, 3-nerved; lemmas semi-elliptic to ovate in profile, ...sparsely to densely hairy on the keel and lateral nerves below, rarely glabrous, blunt at the tip; palea with curled or crispate hairs on the keels, these dense or sparese, rarely absent; anthers 0.6-1.1mm." Luckily there are excellent illustrations.
The grasses, Poaceae, are the most important plant family from an economic point of view. They are part of the order Poales, which includes the sedges and rushes.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Lesser Celandine

Always a pleasure to see the first ranunculus (Buttercup family) in flower, and it's invariably Lesser Celandine or Ficaria vernus
Here it is flowering on 24th February at the base of the prison wall in Lewes along with the purple dead-nettle and ivy-leaved toadflax. 
Gilbert White saw it flowering in Selborne on 21st February, but it usually flowers from March onwards. It is quite common but the flowers only open when it's bright enough. Pilewort is an old name for it because its roots apparently resemble haemorrhoids, for which it was used as a treatment: the good old Doctrine of Signatures. 
Greater celandine is totally unrelated. It belongs in the poppy family. 

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Ivy-leaved Speedwell

This was also flowering at the base of the prison wall not far from the red dead-nettle. It's Ivy-leaved Speedwell or Veronica hederifolia, its species name deriving from the ivy-shaped leaves (see 19th January). It's a bit like Slender Speedwell but it is hairier and has  distinctly palmate veins on the leaves. Compare it with the other speedwell posted on 22nd February - Common Field Speedwell. 

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Red Dead-nettle

This is an early flowerer: Lamium purpureum or Red Dead-nettle. The Dead-nettles are a big family with the Latin name Lamiaceae (also known as Labiatae). It includes the mints, thymes, woundworts, marjorums and sages.
The true nettles, Urticaceae, are a different family. Telling them apart can be useful. 

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Red Fox

Fox study 6" by Peter Trimming
The red fox, Vulpes vulpes, is the most widespread member of the order Carnivora. It is also the largest member of the Vulpes genus. It is the third species in this blog on the IUCN  world's most invasive species: points and a huge money prize for anyone who can name the other two! 
It is also the species responsible for the demise of one of our chickens on Sunday.
The carnivores are the most diverse in size of all the mammalian orders, from 25g (Least Weasel) to 5000000g (Southern Elephant Seal).
The reason they get on the list is their shenanigans in Australia (clue to one of the other species on the blog on the list).
We are blessed/cursed by having a pair of foxes resident at the bottom of our neighbour's wild garden, although to be honest if they weren't there, there would be foxes elsewhere in the locality presenting a risk to our chickens.
Most of the anthropomorphic ideas about foxes in our culture stem from the stories about Reynard the Fox, first written down in the twelfth century. His debut in English was, surprise, surprise, in Chaucer's The Nun's Priest's Tale where he appears as 'Rossel'.

Monday, February 23, 2015


I couldn't help include our other 'pets' - their lives very much tangled up with ours and the local foxes. So here is the domestic chicken, Gallus gallus ssp domesticus. 
There was a grey one until Sunday. She was the master of escapology and this was her undoing. Chicken-keeping is subject to fox predation in most areas, no matter how many precautions one takes.
We have had a good run - two years without trouble - but now it's time to tighten security. It's a shame for our chooks as it means more time in the restricted safe-zone as we'll only really be able to let them out when were are in the garden. But when I go half-time at work this will be a great deal more than at present, so they'll just have to wait until the summer.
Chickens have been bred from the red junglefowl, Gallus gallus, a native of Asia. This is thought to have occurred at least 5000 years ago and they spread rapidly throughout the world in pre-historic times. Who says globalization is a modern phenomenon?

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Hen Harrier (female)

This is a female hen harrier, Circus cyaneus, and I saw one this afternoon on a walk from Rodmell to Southease along the bank of the river Ouse. They are one of our rarest breeding raptors and in very real danger of extinction in the UK. This is in no small part due to the nefarious activities of the grouse-shooting owners of moorland where the birds breed.
The females have an obvious white band at the base of their tails and as a result are known in the birding world as 'ringtails'. This autumn/winter is the first year I've seen them in the lower Ouse valley. The first time I saw one was back in October when it was accompanied by a marsh harrier, another first here. They are sometimes mistaken for each other but a glimpse of the white tail base is a clincher. The male hen harrier is quite different looking: pale blue-grey with black wing tips. They have broad, owlish faces.
If you're interested in curtailing driven grouse-shooting in this country, something a handful of tax-avoiding mega-rich pay to do for a few weeks of the year at the detriment of these and other highland birds, follow this link to sign a petition before the end of March 2015.

Common Field Speedwell

Yesterday's species (I know, getting a bit sloppy on the daily posting) is this speedwell. I found it flowering back on 10th February and have been meaning to put it in.
Speedwells, or Veronica, are the largest genus in the Plantaginaceae family (they used to be in the Scrophulariaceae) with around 500 species. There are 26 listed in Stace (see useful books) and I find even the common ones not that easy to tell apart without a hand lens.
This is Common Speedwell, or Veronica persica. I had posted it as Grey Field Speedwell but on reviewing it I think it's Common Field Speedwell. The reasons being that the flower stalks are much longer than the leaves and there are no glandular hairs on the capsule.

Friday, February 20, 2015

European Jay

Luc Viatour /
The third corvid in this mini-series (catching up on missed posts) is an absolute corker: the European Jay or Garrulus glandarius. The European races have streaked crowns. Their stunning blue wing markings are borrowed from the kingfisher's back and beloved of fly-fishermen. Up close through binoculars it just strikes one as bizarre that such markings could have evolved through some process of selecting an advantageous feature: they appear entirely aesthetic.

Their name derives from their haranguing alarm call. If you ever hear a pair fighting it out in the woods it sounds like someone's torturing children. They have been coming to our garden daily over the winter but we rarely see them during the breeding season.


Not my photo I confess, but kindly put on the web by Benutzer123.
When I was a young teenager my friends and I came across a pair of nestlings at the foot of a tree with a nest in. They were a long way from fledging and we couldn't get back up the tree to replace them so we took them home and put them in a cardboard box in the 'boiler room' and brought them up on baby food which we spoon fed them from the little jars.
When they started flapping about in the room we took them back to the fields and 'taught' them to fly by running down the slope and releasing them much as one would a model aeroplane. From memory it took about three or four training sessions then they were off. They almost immediately re-assimilated into the 'wild'. What I remember most is the smell in the boiler room: not exactly nauseating, but not pleasant either. A bit like baby-sick mixed with Farley's rusks.
Magpies make a terrible racket but have a beautiful iridescence to their black feathers. They are also in the crow family.

PS On 4th March there was a commotion in one of the smaller trees close to the house: looking out we counted 13 magpies sitting in its branches! I'm guessing this was part of some pre-breeding pairing off ritual. A few years ago when I was carrying out a winter survey of a local tetrad for the BTO Bird Atlas I witnessed over thirty magpies in a hawthorn in a field hedge.

Carrion Crow

To most people there's only one crow. It's the carrion crow, Corvus corone. There's something about the latin binomial that puts me in mind of the Godfather. Not inappropriate perhaps, given the bird's reputation. It actually derives from the Latin for raven (corvus) and the Greek for crow.
The sharp witted will have noticed that I missed a couple of days: Wednesday I didn't get back from work until half-midnight and yesterday I had a bit of collapse in front of the TV after running my daughter hither and thither. So today there's three posts to do and I thought I'd cover three regular visitors to the garden from the crow family - the corvids.
Crows hang out in groups if not breeding but are essentially very territorial during the season. Unlike their cousins the rooks who are colonial nesters and hangers-out. I still find it difficult to tell these two apart from a distance or in flight. The rooks tend to be in flocks, often with jackdaws, whereas crows are usually alone or in pairs. They have a lower pitch call and slower wing beats than rooks.
There's a great old country saying: "Thar's crows; thar's rooks. Thar's a rook; thar's a crow." Essentially pointing out that if you think you're looking at a large group of crows you're probably looking at rooks and vice versa.
We have had a pair of crows nesting in the trees surrounding our garden for the last five or six years. A couple of times in the tall, spindly ash trees; once in the Lebanese cedar (February 12th); and a couple of times in our neighbours mature beeches.
Crows are common and probably ignored as a result. They are amongst the most intelligent animals on the planet and can use tools to solve problems. If you ever look one in the eye you'll get a sense of this.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Western Honey Bee

Some of you might be thinking 'he's done crocus before' and you'd be right. But it's not the crocus, it's the bees. Apis mellifera was out and about in numbers for the first time this year in our garden. It was a beautiful day with temperatures reaching twelve degrees centigrade. The same evening I saw our resident bat out and about hawking for insects, which struck me as very early to be out of hibernation. (Perhaps they go back to bed after a snack?)
The big concern recently has been about colony collapse disorder (CCD) which has been variously attributed to many things, including neonicotinoids used in agriculture. However a virus is currently high on the suspect list: Israeli acute paralysis virus.
They are amazing creatures for all sorts of reasons but I'm too bunged up with a nasty cold and it's too late to enumerate them all. So here's a link to follow if you're interested.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Redshank (moss)

This little bryophyte was growing in one of our plant pots and I felt I should make an effort to identify it so we could enjoy a new taxon that, like lichens, is commonly overlooked.
I've tried identifying mosses before and not found it easy, even with the British Bryological Society's great field guide. After a good half an hour perusing the keys, I have decided that this is redshank or Ceratodon purpureus. This is one of the commonest mosses in the UK according to the book, which I found reassuring. It should not be confused with the wader of the same name.
The thing about moss identification is being able to see the leaves clearly. Given that they're often only a millimetre long this can be challenging. I recently purchased a x20 hand lens to supplement my standard x10 one and found it much better for seeing the necessary detail.
Unlike lichens, it appears that most mosses have been given a common name. Why not lichens? 

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Wall Rue

Spotted this little fella just after the violet. It's growing in a crack in the wall by a main road. So on one hand it's not particularly fussy; but on the other it only seems to grow in cracks in walls and rocks. Hence its common and latin names: wall rue, or Asplenium ruta-muraria
There are other wall-dwellers too, like ivy-leaved toadflax. What is it about their biology that means they only survive in such a restricted niche? There are names for plants that live on rocks: epipetric, epilithic or lithophytic. Certainly worth trying to slip one into a conversation if you can.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Hairy Violet

Walking back from the butcher's I spotted the first violet of the year growing by the roadside. I assumed it was either Common Dog-violet or Early Dog-violet but close inspection suggests that it's Hairy Violet or Viola hirta
There are several species of violet in the UK and telling them apart can be tricky, but a good place to start is the presence of hairs on the flower stalk: either Hairy Violet or Sweet Violet. Then it comes down to looking at the structure of the sepals and spur. 
My favourite is Sweet Violet but it's not as common as the others round these parts. When we first moved into our house there was a good patch of Sweet Violet growing down in the orchard but it's no longer there.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Northern Lapwing

Went for a brief but bracing walk with me old pal James this morning. This is the view from Southease bridge looking north up the Ouse river towards Lewes. The town is just visible to the right of the line of trees sloping down from the left had side. Just to the right of centre is Mount Caburn, site of a still very visible Iron Age hill fort. There is a dry valley behind which is absolutely awash with wild flowers in the spring, including more orchids than I've ever seen. 
On the walk down to the river from Rodmell we could see huge numbers of lapwing, Vanellus vanellus. I reckon there were more than a thousand altogether across the valley. They are one of my favourite birds: I love watching the flocks in flight. Think murmuration of starlings on steroids. They have white bellies which flash silver as they twist one way then the other. If you're standing within a few hundred metres you can hear the rush of air through their collective wings. The wings themselves look out of proportion with the rest of the body, giving rise to the, as it transpires erroneous, notion that 'flap-wing' might have been an original epithet.
In the season, or sometimes just when the desire seizes them, they perform their acrobatic courtship flights and emit their wonderful weird noises, including the "peewit" call that lends them one of their common names.

On the ground they are no less alluring with their cocky crests and irridescent green and purple mantles, black throats, faces and bills. 
We are lulled into a false sense of their success as a species by these large winter flocks as these are swelled with visitors from the continent; the UK population has plummeted by more than 80% in many areas. As a breeding bird it is in danger of becoming extinct in the south east. Yet this was a bird that has been associated with all types of agricultural land for more than 2000 years. 
Andreas Trepte,

The small RSPB reserve at Lewes Brooks was purchased in the hope that they might maintain a toe-hold in the valley. I have been surveying the site for six years now and last year was the first time I ever saw a youngster fledge, although on average four pairs attempt to breed every season. There are simply too many predators: foxes, mink, crows, ravens, herring gulls and peregrines.
According to Mark Cocker they have more vernacular names than any other British species. These include green plover, pie-wipe, pee-wee, peasiewheep, toppyup, and in Shetland, tieve's nacket (meaning thieves' imp). In the seventeenth century prostitutes and deceitful women were known as 'plovers'. They are masters of deceit when it comes to protecting their nests and young, often feigning injury by dragging one wing along the ground and hopping away to distract predators. In fact the collective noun for lapwings is a 'deceit'.   

Thursday, February 12, 2015


Okay - finally found the little bastards hiding under the beech hedge. I'm sure they weren't there two days ago.
Snowdrop, or Galanthus nivalis. The latin binomial comes from gala (milk), anthus (flower), and nivalis (of the snow). Lovely.
Unlike the crocus (January 27th) which grows from a corm, or swollen stem base, the common snowdrop grows from a bulb, or swollen leaf-bases.
The flower is made up of apparently six petals, but in fact three are petals and three are sepals. Collectively they are the tepals of the perianth.
Like orchids, they are part of the Asparagales order of the monocot clade. Lots of useful plants are in this order, such as the onions, asparagus (suprise!), garlic and vanilla, but there is a more important order in the monocot clade (guess).
They contain a chemical that has been named galantamine which has been used in the treatment of Alzheimer's disease and vascular dementia and also by people trying to have out-of-body experiences. (It's essentially a mild anti-cholinesterase with additional nicotinic receptor agonist activity.)

The other thing about snowdrops is that there is a thriving market in the various cultivars. It's a bit like the tulip-mania which gripped seventeenth century Holland, with people paying £360 for a single bulb! (Follow the link to an eye-opening BBC article about the craze.)

Lebanese Cedar

Even later tonight. So here's a pic of our neighbour's Lebanese cedar, Cedrus libani. It is a magnificent tree and from our house you could believe it was in our garden.
I've just read that very mature specimens can sometimes drop branches weighing one or two tonnes, without warning and sometimes in calm weather. Alarming as their children often play beneath its boughs, but I don't think this would count as a mature tree.
Would it?

Tuesday, February 10, 2015


Another quick one this evening as my parents are staying over and we've been chewing the fat, burning the candle, etc. However, I did manage a perambulation of the grounds and found some species sneakily in flower.

This is hazel, Corylus avellana, and it is in flower! The flowers are monoecious: the female flower is the tiny red bit sticking out of the bud at the top of the left hand picture; the male is the familiar catkin. The nuts, of course, develop from the former. 

We planted a number of hazel and filibert cultivars about 5 years ago. Usually the tree rats get them just after it occurs to me that I should think about picking them. Last year I got there first and we had over 4kg! Still have plenty left. Turkey produces over 75% of the world's hazelnuts: around 625 tonnes. But hazel was one of the most important plants to us humans because of its tendency to coppice. In fact it 'autocoppices'. It has provided long thin poles for a multiplicity of uses down the ages as well as its delicious, protein-rich nuts.

Coppicing was once how nearly all woodland was managed. Its cessation has caused massive habitat loss with inevitable consequences for the dependent species.

Hazel is usually placed in the birch family, Betulaceae, with the alders and hornbeams.

Monday, February 09, 2015

Winter Jasmine

Apologies for possibly the worst photo so far. I'm trying to avoid 'borrowing' photos. I had taken a few pics over the weekend but my daughter has gone off to Berlin with the camera, so I've been left trawling the phone pics.
This was taken last week in the garden as a bit of an afterthought. It is winter jasmine, or Jasminum nudiflorum and got a mention in yesterday's post as one of the few plants in flower at this time of the year.
It is not native to these parts, but originates in China. It has naturalised in parts of France the US but is not invasive. Other plants in the same family, Oleaceae, include olive, privet, ash, forsythia and lilac.

Sunday, February 08, 2015

Lesser Periwinkle

Today's species is lesser periwinkle or Vinca minor. Here it is in our garden, growing around the base of a cotoneaster tree and spreading slowly across the flowerbed and over the wall. I always thought it must be an introduced species but apparently it is thought to be native in the south of England. It's larger sibling, greater periwinkle (Vinca major no less), is introduced from the Mediterranean. You can tell lesser from greater because the former has short-stalked, more elliptical leaves and the calyx-teeth are smooth, whereas the latter has longer-stalked, more oval leaves and hairy calyx teeth. They are flowering a little earlier than usual, joining the crocuses, daphne, viburnum, hellebores and winter jasmine as the only flowers in the garden at present. We did used to have the odd snowdrop but no sign of any this year.

Orchid - Cymbidium

It's nearly midnight and I didn't get out to find suitable species today so here's one that is definitely not native but which I'm proud of as I've managed to keep it alive for many years and still it flowers spectacularly from time to time. It also links with the cultivars theme from yesterday and begs the larger question about non-native organisms (of which more later).
This is, of course, a member of one of the largest families of flowering plants, the Orchidaceae. There are currently around 25,000 species known in around 850 genera. This one is a Cymbidium sp hybrid which does well in cool climates. What a belter!

Friday, February 06, 2015

Bell heather

Those expecting a continuation of the Scottish theme might have jumped to the conclusion that this is common heather (or ling). However, this is bell-heather, or Erica cinerea growing in the garden of the Trust headquarters in Brighton. Ling is sometimes referred to as summer heather and Erica species as winter heather. The former has small scale-like leaves and four-part corolla and calyx (compared to Erica which have five). Both have been developed by horticulturists for ornamental use in gardens, with many cultivars to chose from.
It belongs to the Ericales order which includes tea, persimmon, rhododendron, blueberry, brazil nut, cranberry, azaleas and camellias. Primrose is also in this order.

Thursday, February 05, 2015

Giant Redwood

I just realised that I didn't post anything yesterday. Too busy working and discussing anarchism.
So here's a whopper to catch up: Sequoiadendron giganteum aka the giant redwood and Wellingtonia. It is native to North West America and one of three 'redwoods' (along with Coast Redwood and the Dawn Redwood). It can grow to enormous dimensions, as seen in the General Sherman which is thought to be the largest single-stem tree on earth. It is in the order Pinales which contains all the conifers. It is in the Cupressaceae or cypress family.

Common Polypody

This was growing up by the croft we stayed in on the south side of Loch Broom at about 140m above sea level (it felt higher walking up to it!). It's Polypodium vulgare or common polypody, one of our commonest pteridophytes. The underside shows the sori which develop on fertile fronds. They contain the spores and are not covered by a membrane called an indusium which is found in other ferns.
They are called polypody on account of growing from rhizomes which have lots (poly) of apparent feet (pody). They are found growing on walls (like this) and in banks, as well as on trees as epiphytes.

Tuesday, February 03, 2015


This is a famous lichen: Lobaria pulmonaria. It's famous because it used to be widespread but was wiped out by air polution, to which it is very sensitive. Once gone it takes a long time to recolonise so it remains confined to areas which have always had good air quality. It is usually found on deciduous trees such as (in this case) oak and when found is considered an ancient woodland indicator. 
It used to be collected in huge quantities and used to treat diseases of the lungs (the old Doctrine of Signatures). However it was also used for tanning and even as an alternative to hops for brewing beer!

Cladonia humilis

I had to add this lichen as it is very pretty. It's definitely a Cladonia genus member and I'm pretty sure it's Cladonia humilis. I'll see if I can get that confirmed by a grown-up.

Mountain Hare

I did try to post using the Blogger app on my phone, but for some reason it kept refusing to actually publish the posts. Very frustrating.

So here are three species to cover the 1st February to today. I'll do a separate post of each one.

The first one was the mountain hare, or Lepus timidus. We saw a couple of these on our way up Ben Mor on the 1st February. Needless to say I didn't manage to get a good close up with my phone. The clue is in the species name. Even the two dogs didn't manage to get close to them.

This is a picture of near where we saw them. Amazing place to choose as one's ecological niche!

Other names include blue hare, alpine hare, Irish hare, snow hare.

You can tell them from the slightly larger brown hare because they always have a white tail.