Thursday, April 30, 2015

Willow Warbler

"Willow Warbler Phylloscopus trochilus" by Andreas Trepte - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons
The willow warbler, Phylloscopus trochilus, had to be today's species after yesterday's chiffchaff. It is more impressive on account of its hardcore migration (all the way to sub-Saharan Africa) and prettier song. The latter is a delightful cascade of liquid notes.
Unfortunately their numbers have fallen massively over the last few decades. The reasons are not entirely clear but humans kill tens of thousands of migrating passerines every year in places like Cyprus and Malta.


Chiffchaff - Andreas Trepte. Licensed underCC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons

Our Gilbert (White) separated this bird from the almost identical looking willow warbler and the slightly less similar wood warbler, back in 1789. He did so by realising their songs were very different.
They still are and chiffchaff, Phylloscopus collybita, is one of the easiest bird songs to recognise (up there with cuckoo).
They are migratory, spending winter on the Med and North Africa, but in the last couple of decades a number of birds stop their southward journey in southern Britain. I see them around Lewes all year round. It is always great to hear the first male singing its onomatopoeic song. 

Wednesday, April 29, 2015


When I first saw this I thought it must be a Prunus of some sort, but after a good look through the guides I discovered that it is in fact an introduced plant from North America called Juneberry or Amelanchier lamarckii. Weirdly it is not actually found in the wild in Canada, where it is thought to have originated from in the seventeenth century. It is thought to be a hybrid from two Amelanchier species there. Being apomictic (see Dandelion post) it breeds true from seed. I was struck by the delicate leaves with their reddish hue and the finely spaced petals of the flowers.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Bombus hortorum

This is a female Bombus hortorum. You can tell by the two thoracic yellow stripes, the yellow abdominal one and the white behind. It is female as it has an (empty) pollen basket and 13 segments to its antennae (males have 12). It also has a very long face to accommodate its very long tongue. As a consequence of the latter it favours flowers with long corolla tubes such as foxgloves, Lamium species and clovers. 
This one was a little worse for wear. Hopefully not overcome by neonicotinoid poisoning.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Ramsons or Wild Garlic

Unlike garlic mustard, which only smells when crushed or bruised, wild garlic, ramsons or Allium ursinum does smell when you get close to it.
Its name derives from the fact that brown bears are keen on it and will dig up the bulbs. Similarly wild boar.
The flower stems are weakly triangular in cross section and the flower heads do not contain bulbils (like, for example, wild onion or crow garlic). 
It is an ancient woodland indicator in many parts of the country, often associated with bluebells. All parts of the plant are edible although apparently people are regularly poisoned through misidentifying lily-of-the-valley and wild arum as ramsons (which even as an amateur botanist I find surprising).
Note the papery bract.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Marsh Stitchwort

Couldn't resist putting in this photo taken from Rackham Wood looking west over Amberley Wild Brooks. It is thrilling to see a bit of 'old landscape' like this that was so nearly 'improved' like so many other grazing marshes. (Mind you, this too was 'improved' in the nineteenth century when ditches were cut to increase drainage.) In the northern section is some relic raised peat bog, the only example in the South East of England. Half of the UK aquatic flora are found here.

The species today is confined to such habitat. Marsh Stitchwort or Stellaria palustris is a member of the pink or carnation family. This family lends its name to the order Caryophyllales which includes the cacti, amaranths, ice plants, beets and many carnivorous species.
I initially thought it was greater stitchwort, which does look remarkably similar. The differences, however, are the smooth-edged leaves and the papery edges to the bracts which are just visible if you zoom in on the middle photo.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Common Dog-Violet

The third violet is one of the commonest. This is a particularly fine specimen found on my walk through Rackham Wood yesterday. The things to note about it are the pointy sepals, the flower stalk arising from the shoot and not the base and the spur being much paler than the rest of the flower. The spur is also slightly notched at its end the way some people's noses are. It doesn't smell or have any hairs (i.e. it is glabrous). Another feature noted in Rose is the nectar lines are very prominent and branched on the lower petal, but I find this a bit too variable to be of much use. This plant is a textbook example of the species.

Friday, April 24, 2015

White dead-nettle

The white dead-nettle, Lamium album,  is just coming into flower. It often grows amongst stinging nettles (as in this case) and even when it doesn't, does such a good job of impersonation that few can be persuaded to touch the plant before the heroic botanist.
Grigson tells us one of the local names is Adam-and-Eve-in-the-Bower: if you invert the flower the black and gold stamens lie side-by-side like two human figures.
I must check this out next time I come across it.
This was in Rackham Woods on the edge of Amberley Brooks where I spent a very pleasant but futile afternoon seeking out the lesser-spotted woodpecker before it becomes extinct in Sussex.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Snake's head fritillary

Surely one of our prettiest native flowers? 
It wasn't described until the sixteenth century by Gerard, but then only as a garden plant. The first description of it in the wild wasn't until 1736. This led some to feel that it must be a garden escapee.
Generally it is now regarded as a native plant although Mr Grigson didn't think so.
The genus name derives from fritillus or dice-box and the specific from the apparent resemblance of the petals to guinea-fowl feathers.
The largest concentration of these in the UK is at North Meadow near Cricklade, Wiltshire in the Thames valley. The Magdalen College meadow in Oxford is another famous site and there's a stunning photo of it in Flora Britannica.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Cuckoo-pint/Lords and Ladies

I'm not going to have time to do justice to this plant tonight. Arum maculatum or Cuckoo-pint or Lords and Ladies or Wild Arum or Snake's head, etc. is a very common plant and one of the first to push up green leaves in the new year.
Its common names relate to its resemblance to male and female genitalia, with Cuckoo-pint meaning 'cuckoo's penis'. 
There is an amazing book of photographs and lore associated with this plant which has its own website

Tuesday, April 21, 2015


 Another crucifer today: honesty or Lunaria annua. Pretty purple flowers and the better known seed heads that become transparent on drying and used in flower arrangements. 
It is native to the Balkans and south west asia, now naturalised throughout much of the temperate world.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Garlic mustard

This came out better than expected, photographically. It was an accident of course. 
This is garlic mustard or Jack-by-the-hedge, Alliaria petiolata. A common plant, especially on chalk. It smells garlicky when bruised and was widely used in cooking, either as an addition to salads or boiled to make a sauce.
It was introduced to the US in the nineteenth century for this purpose and has become an invasive weed, producing chemicals that suppress the mycorrhizal fungi there (but not here in its native range).
It is also the food plant of orange tip butterflies, the year's first of which I saw a week ago. 

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Common Shrew

Came across this whilst doing the WeBS survey on Friday: a common shrew, Sorex araneus. They are widespread and common, as the name suggests, being one of Europe's commonest mammals. Consequently they feature on the menu of many a predator. They are largely nocturnal to avoid such a culinary fate. They need to consume 2-3x their own mass each day and can starve to death in a few as five hours. They are unable to store sufficient fat to hibernate so are active year-round. I'm not really sure what this one succumbed to.

Dove's-foot Crane's-bill

I completely forgot to post yesterday despite ample time, so two posts today to make up.
This was growing at the base of the wall on the pavement where several other plant-posts have originated. There are an extraordinary number of species growing along this 100m stretch of wall, either unnoticed or considered mere 'weeds' by the average pedestrian. I must count them one day. 
Dove's-foot Crane's-bill, Geranium molle, looks like Small-flowered Crane's-bill but is distinguished by having long hairs rather than adpressed down on the stems, all ten stamens have anthers (rather than just five) and the fruits are smooth (see microscope pic).

Friday, April 17, 2015

Water Horsetail

I was down on Lewes Brooks RSPB reserve early this morning doing a WeBS survey and noticed the water horsetail, Equisetum fluviatile, was coming up. It has yet to develop the whorled branches but is not difficult to identify. Not all the stems develop a terminal cone. In cross-section the stems are hollow with a thin circular wall. 

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Great Horsetail


I found this on my Ouse riverbank walk the other day. It's Great Horsetail or Equisetum telmateia. 
It's in the same division as the ferns (Pteridophyta) as it reproduces by spores rather than seeds. It's one of two species in the genus that produce non-green cone-bearing shoots in Spring before the green, branched shoots that appear in Summer.  It is one of the living fossils, being the only surviving genus from a class of plants that dominated the land back in the Carboniferous period when coal was being formed. Some species were trees reaching 30m in height.
"Equisetopsida" by Rror Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Herring Gull

For those who live in a seaside town plagued by herring gulls nesting on roofs and stealing food from their hands, the idea that they're a Red List species comes as something of a shock. Yet the population of Larus argentatus has plummeted over the last two decades. One reason given is the loss of open land-fill domestic waste sites.
They are impressive birds, flying at close quarters to us humans in a way that eagles and other large species of bird seldom do. No wonder Jonathan Bach chose a seagull as his protagonist.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Large Bee-fly

Another harbinger of Spring: the large bee-fly, Bombylius major
I love these funny creatures with their ridiculous permanently protruding proboscii. They hover about before zooming in to drink nectar from the primroses and cherry blossom. When they've had sufficient they choose a sunny patch of bare earth or wall to kick back and relax.
Apparently they're a mysterious bunch, the bee-flies. Prolific in species terms but poorly understood scientifically in terms of life-cycle. The majority are parasitic at the larval stage, with some being host-specific while others are more opportunistic. 
They belong to the order Diptera, the true flies. Estimated to contain around a quarter of a million species of which only about half have been described. They are distinguished by having a pair of wings on their mesothorax and sucking mouthparts.
This is the first fly on the blog and surely one of the most popular! 

Monday, April 13, 2015

Cuckoo Flower or Lady's Smock

Another spring classic, this is found in damp grassy ditches and field margins. Cardamine pratensis has one of the longest lists of local vernacular names in Mr Grigson's master work. It appears to be widely associated with bad luck if picked so is not really used medicinally. In the old days smock was use as innuendo for a female desired sexually, as in 'a bit of skirt'. 
It's part of the Brassicaceae or cabbage family, formerly known as the Cruciferae or crucifers on account of their having four petals arranged in a cross. I found this today walking along the bank of the Ouse.
The more I reflect, the more it's as if some massive switch was thrown whilst we were away in Morocco, signalling the start of Spring proper. This has been especially noticeable with the garden bird-feeders. Before we went I was re-filling the big seed feeder every two to three days. I filled it when we got back and
more than a week later it's still not empty, with the ones nearest the house virtually untouched. The peanuts have been shunned completely. 
I'm sure the reason for this is the dispersal of wintering flocks now that the breeding hormones have kicked in. The birds have all become territorial and consequently anti-social (barring the house sparrows, wherever they are). 
On my walk today I saw two crows' nests with sitting birds, along with magpies and blackbirds gathering nesting material. I also heard the first willow warbler of the year, saw three peregrines at the same time (a male and female with another male somewhat apart) and a buzzard. Yesterday I saw that the ravens have two fledglings only days away from leaving the nest.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Two-Toothed Door Snail

I love this photo. I was looking at the lichens and bryophytes at about head height on a mature oak on the Downs a couple of weeks ago. Imagine my surprise when I saw this sticking out of a hole in the lichen. 

Initially I thought someone must have put it there, but removing it soon revealed it was alive and well.
It's the first land mollusc on the blog and nice to have such a groovy one: the two-toothed door snail or Clausilia bidentata. I don't think I've seen one before but they're fairly common, found throughout the British Isles, usually in woodland. They are most active at night or when it's wet. It had rained heavily before my walk and this encourages them to climb trees to graze on lichens and algae.
Molluscs are the second largest phylum in the animal kingdom after arthropods. However there are 85,000 described species compared with 1.2 - 10 million arthropods. Snails are in the class Gastropoda and the family Clausiliidae.