Thursday, 23 April 2020

Birds and plants during Isolation Exercise

This morning for my daily lockdown exercise I went on a bike ride through my local 'patch' on the edge of North Ormesby, (known variously ( and only to me so far) as 'the Lower Ormesby Beck Nature Area', Ormesby Beck Meadows and, 'the nature reserve' (which it currently isn't by any definition)), then along Dockside Road, in the direction of Redcar (didn't get that far though) to South Bank, and then back by almost the same way except for a detour along part of the Teesdale Way. It was a lovely morning and I was hearing birdsong almost as soon as I left the house. On entering my little 'nature area' almost the first thing I heard was the beautiful flutey warble of a male Blackcap, with the repetitive song of a Chiffchaff in the background behind it, shortly followed by the sweet, descending song of a Willow Warbler. 

Chiffchaff and Willow Warbler look extremely similar - small, thin-billed greeny-yellow birds in the Leaf-warbler Family (Phylloscopidae) - but they are readily distinguished by their songs. In fact they were once thought to be one species, along with the closely related Wood Warbler, called the Willow Wren. It wasn't until Gilbert White published his observations of their different songs and habits in his book 'The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne' in 1789, that people started to accept that they were different species, and even then Chiffchaff wasn't formally described as a species until 1817. 

A bit further along my route (but still within 'my' patch), in some scrubby woodland beside the Ormesby Beck I heard a harsh rattle, and then another one from a bit further away, which I recognised as Lesser Whitethroats. I managed to record a bit of video footage (see - Chiffchaff and Lesser Whitethroat Song) where you can hear a Chiffchaff saying its name over and over, and then at the 10-second and 36-second mark you can hear the rapid chatter of one of the Lesser Whitethroats. . These are the first ones I had heard this year and were probably newly-arrived after a long journey from their wintering grounds in sub-Saharan Africa. 

You might be surprised to learn that often, particularly at this time of year, birders only actually see a small proportion of all the birds that end up in their notebooks (or whatever electronic equivalent they are using to record their 'sightings') - I could have wasted a lot of time trying to see all the various warblers, thrushes, Wrens and other birds that I heard this morning, but in most cases there was no need, as I knew straightaway what they were. This is not because I am some sort of birdsong genius, but because they are relatively common birds that I have learned to recognise by song after many years of birding, and also, they were all species that I was expecting to be there, if not today, then in the very near future. If a scarcer, or more patchily distributed species, such as a Pied Flycatcher or a Common Redstart had been singing on my local patch, I would probably have needed to get a look at it before confidently identifying it, as I just don't know those species' songs very well, plus that would be a more unusual occurrence.

After leaving my little local patch, having added Great Tit, Blackbird, Song Thrush and Wren to the day's birdlist, I continued east and a bit north, past some fields containing several pairs of Lapwings  - some of which were noisily seeing off potential predators. I managed to get to the edge of the Tees itself a couple of times, adding a couple of pairs of Shelduck to the list, as well as lots of Herring Gulls, a mating pair of noisy black-and-white Oystercatchers, a much quieter pair of Ringed Plovers and my first Swallow of the year (only one, so it's not summer yet), before turning round and heading back.

The return route, with detours to South Bank Station and along part of the Teesdale Way, was of more botanical than ornithological interest. A patch of striking, but as yet unidentified (while I wait for the opinions of the experts) fumitory by South Bank Station was the first to pique my interest. 

An as-yet-unidentified fumitory (Fumaria sp.)

Nearer to home, and just after the Teesdale Way joined the course of the Ormesby Beck (or the other way round) I noticed a diminutive grey-green plant growing along the stone ramparts of the man-made channel in which the beck flows at this point. Once I got my binoculars on it I was pretty sure that it was Sea Wormwood (Artemisia maritima), a salt-loving plant which is not very common in this part of the country, and was able to confirm this with closer views (and smells - it has quite strongly scented leaves), and photographs. A bit further upstream, in a little patch of saltmarsh at the edge of the beck, along with more Sea Wormwood, I found two more salt-loving plants - Common Scurvygrass (Cochlearia officinalis) and Sea Plantain (Plantago maritima). The first of these is as close relative of Danish Scurvygrass, which you have probably seen as a pinkish-white haze at the sides of main roads that have been gritted a lot over the winter (see Cycle Ride to the Sea for more about this). All three of these plants are a good indication, if the periodically exposed mud and its proximity to the Tees estuary were not enough, that the beck at this point is still tidal, with salt water coming in twice a day.
Sea Wormwood - a scarcer relative of the much commoner plant, Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris)
Common Scurvygrass - not a grass at all,
but actually a member of the Cabbage Family
(the thin leaves poking through are Sea Plantain leaves)
Sea Plantain - the fleshy leaves are a defense mechanism against
drying out in the salty environment in which it lives
By this time I was looking forward to being home and, except for a brief stop at 'Ormesby Beck Meadows' to listen for Lesser Whitethroats again, and to add  Stock Dove to the day's birdlist (as well to the 'all-time' list for my local patch - I've not seen one there before), I lost no time in getting there and back to jigsaw puzzles, witty banter with my family and 'sheltering in place', as they call it in the US.

Thursday, 26 March 2020

Birdsong during lockdown

Yesterday Sue and I went for a cycle ride,  for our daily exercise as encouraged by the government. It was a beautiful day and we were able to hear lots of birdsong. The first things we heard has turned onto the main road from our house were a Robin singing, quickly followed by a Blackbird alarm calling, a singing Dunnock and two Chiff-Chaffs, one on either side of the road. The Chiff-Chaff sings its name .... repeatedly ... chiffchaffchifffchaffchiffchaff etc. This is a small greenish yellow warbler which used to be exclusively a spring and summer visitor to this country but now winters here in small numbers (the bulk of the population still migrates to sunnier southern climes in the winter).
Further along our route, but still in built up suburbs of Middlesbrough, we heard a male Chaffinch doing his imitation of a fast bowler, a Greenfinch wheezing his simple song, a Woodpigeon telling his woes to his wife (“my toe bleeds, Betty”) and a Magpie with its rattling call. Up to this point we had hardly actually seen any birds apart from a sadly deceased Herring Gull on the road (it was a very small residential road so the driver must have really been trying), but then we saw a couple of Blackbirds picking up little bits of food from the middle of the road. 
As we got off roads and onto cycle tracks among golf courses and playing fields we heard Wrens, Great Tits, Blue Tits and more of the same species that we had already heard. We also saw our first Jackdaws and Carrion Crows, looking for worms, beetles and other tasty morsels on the playing fields. After a while we got into proper countryside and the lovely village of Stainton, where there was a pair of Long-tailed Tits in a bush in someone’s front garden (cute, fluffy little balls of feathers with a long thin tail sticking out) and a Goldfinch singing his scratchy, bubbly, joyful song from the top of a tall tree. Just after the village we decided to turn around in a little lay-by by a field and as we stopped we heard the beautiful heavenly sound of a Skylark song, high in the air above our heads. After searching for a few minutes we were able to see it, like a miniature kite which had lost its string. Then it was time to turn and head home. 

Monday, 16 March 2020

Woodland wildflowers

On Saturday afternoon I went on a plant hunt for an uncommon species that was reported several years ago along one of the becks in Middlesbrough (Linguistic Note - 'beck' is a word of Viking origin used for a stream or brook in much of the north of England). The plant I was looking for was Coralroot (Cardamine bulbifera) and this is one of very few sites in the north-east of England where it has been recorded. I was armed with a handy app on my phone to find grid references on the ground, plus an eight-figure grid reference for where it was found, which theoretically should take me to the 10x10m square that it was found in, assuming the GPS used by the original finder was accurate. 

Coralroot, also known as Coralroot Bittercress, is a close relative of the bittercresses which you might have as weeds in your garden, and also the pretty meadow flower known variously as Lady's Smock, Cuckooflower and Milkmaids. Unlike those species however, Coralroot is a plant of calcareous woodland and in the UK is mostly restricted to well-known sites in the south-east of England. It has delicate pink flowers on tall slender stalks and flowers for quite a brief period in early spring. 

My walk was mainly on a path through a narrow corridor of woodland along the beck, although I did scramble across the stream a couple of times and found some promising little ponds where I found Glaucous Sedge (Carex flacca) and a little bit of Common Reed (Phragmites australis) - not enough to qualify as a reedbed though. It is still quite early in the spring but nevertheless there was plenty to look at - mostly on the woodland floor. Although when people talk of woods, you might think of trees first, the thing which often distinguishes one area of woodland from another, and which tells you how healthy the woodland is (and maybe how old it is, or which part of the country it is in), is the ground flora. When woods are cut down or otherwise degraded, it is relatively easy to replant trees, but this doesn't replace what has been lost, particularly if the woodland was a real 'ancient woodland' with its suite of Ancient Woodland Indicator species (AWIs). To be honest, I didn't expect much from this particular bit of woodland (one old record of Coralroot notwithstanding), and so I was pleasantly surprised to see carpets of Dog's Mercury, with its little green flowers and Red Campion, mostly not yet in flower, interspersed with lots of Cuckoo-pint. 
Dog's Mercury (Mercurialis perennis)
The only flower of Red Campion
(Silene dioica) that I found

The leaves of Cuckoo-pint (Arum maculatum) (aka Lords and Ladies,  Jack in the Pulpit,
Adam and Eve, Friar's Cowl and many other (often fairly lewd) names). Later in the spring its
distinctive flowers (a brown spike and leaf-like green sheath) may give a clue to the origin of
some of the names. In the autumn it looks different again, with its spike of bright red berries
There were scattered patches of several other native woodland species - Primroses, the carnation-like leaves of Greater Stitchwort, the deep purple 'bunny-eared' flowers of Early Dog-violet (told from the closely related Common Dog-violet by the shape and colour of the spur at the back of the flower), a few  bluebells (probably mostly hybrids between the native species and Spanish Bluebell, although one clump with very narrow leaves (but no flowers yet) looked promising) and one patch of Woodruff sticking up its fresh new shoots amongst a few sad-looking stems from last year - later in the spring there will be clouds of tiny white sweet-smelling flowers (hence the common name 'Sweet Woodruff' and the scientific name Galium odoratum). 

Primroses with a few Early Dog-violets sneaking
into the picture. The leaves at the
bottom are Red Campion
Early Dog-violets. On a couple of the flowers
you can just see the spur, which is straight
and darker than the petals.
The scientific name, Viola reichenbachiana
always makes me think of Sherlock Holmes

The thin carnation-like leaves of
Greater Stitchwort (Stellaria holostea)
The fresh green whorls of Woodruff
           leaves poking through the dead leaves from last year

Not unexpectedly, given the earliness of the date, not many species were in flower, but you might be surprised at how many plants can be identified from their leaves alone and how pretty those leaves can be - as well as some of the species mentioned already, Herb Robert (a pink-flowered relative of the geraniums you might have in flower pots), Wood Avens (a relative of roses with small yellow flowers) and Cow Parsley (from the carrot family) fit into this category. 

Herb Robert leaves
(Geranium robertianum)
Wood Avens (Geum urbanum) leaves. It is also
called Herb Bennet - I don't know why

Cow Parsley aka Queen Anne's Lace
(Anthriscus sylvestris). 

Although it was early for most things, it was actually almost too late for some - notably Snowdrops and Lesser Celandine, both of which have been flowering pretty much since New Year's Day this year.

Snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis)
Lesser Celandine (Ficaria verna)

Along the sides of the beck were many clumps of a plant which you might recognise as 'that thing that I can't get rid of from my garden and which cut my hands to shreds when I tried to get it out' - Pendulous Sedge (Carex pendula). There were also a few patches of the much smaller (and scarcer) little yellowish flowers of Opposite-leaved Golden-Saxifrage (Chrysosplenium oppositifolium) - both its names perhaps seem deserving of a bigger, more showy plant but I still really like it. Its even scarcer relative Alternate-leaved Golden-Saxifrage (Chrysosplenium alternifolium - Really!!! Who names these things??!!!) is found in similar stream-side habitats in some woods locally but I haven't managed to track it down yet.

The broad pleated leaves of Pendulous Sedge.
The drooping inflorescences that give it its
name will appear in the summer
The inconspicuous flowers of Opposite-
leaved Golden Saxifrage can be found along
muddy stream banks in woodland. The spot where
 these are was underwater a couple of weeks ago
As well as plants there were a few birds - Robins, Wrens and Chaffinches all singing to attract mates and ward off rival males, a glimpse of the white rump of a Bullfinch flying away from me and the sharp 'chik' call of a Great-spotted Woodpecker. Also, a small grey bird flying away along the beck as I arrived may well have been a Grey Wagtail (see The Making of a Pond and an Unexpected Visitor and More about Grey Wagtails for more about this species).

Oh and I almost forgot to say - I didn't find the Coralroot, although I think I may have found the area where it was - near where the Greater Stitchwort, the Early Dog Violets and the promising-looking bluebells were. It may well have died out (there's a strong chance that it originated as a garden-escape/throwout anyway) but judging from my previous experience of this species it might have been there all along, hiding from me (and possibly laughing at me).

Nevertheless, even though my hunt was unsuccessful by one way of looking at it, it was very successful from another point of view as I found a lovely strip of beck-side woodland and I am really looking forward to going back there later in the season and seeing what other treasures it holds.

Thanks to my father-in-law, Brian Eden for help with photo-editing.
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