Friday, 19 July 2019

A week full of beautiful plants and great people

From last Saturday until this morning, I was in the Yorkshire Dales, near the village of Malham, and the famous Malham Tarn, at the week-long Annual Summer Meeting of the Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland (or the ASM of the BSBI). About 46 very keen botanists ( of a range of skill-levels but including some of the best botanists in the country) gathered in what is one of the great botanical hot-spots of the British Isles. During the week we had trips to some really special habitats  where there are plants growing that are hard to see anywhere else. For the last few days we split into small groups to survey tetrads (2x2km squares) to identify all the wild plants we could find there for the up-coming new edition of the Atlas of British and Irish Flora which will be published next year.
Each day one of the participants was a guest blogger on the BSBI's "News & Views" blog, and on the Monday that was me.
Here is my post

And here are some of the photos I took that didn't make it onto the BSBI blog:

The sign at the entrance to Ingleborough National Nature Reserve
A botanist photographing a Frog Orchid (Coeloglossum viride)
Melancholy Thistle (Cirsium heterophyllum)
A very pretty, unprickly thistle, with white undersides to the leaves,
which is found in upland areas of northern England and in Scotland
Limestone Pavement on the side of Ingleborough - one of Yorkshire's Three Peaks
Ribblehead Viaduct - opened in 1876 for the Settle-Carlisle Railway.
Trains still go over it, including occasional steam trains

Monday, 8 July 2019

Another Twitch - White-winged Tern at Saltholme

On Friday afternoon last week I nipped across the river to the RSPB's lovely reserve at Saltholme where an adult, summer plumaged White-winged Tern (Chlidonias leucopterus) had been giving great views to lots of people for the past day and a half.

This is a bird that I have seen once before in the UK, and several times abroad but always in grotty juvenile plumage, when it looks very like two other closely-related species - the Black Tern (C. niger) and the Whiskered Tern (C. hybrida), so I was very keen to see it.

When I arrived there I was told by the staff (who assumed that that was what I had come for) that the bird was still flying around the main lake and was visible from the big window on the ground floor of the visitor centre (there may have been a better view from the cafe upstairs but that was just closing so I couldn't go in). After a few minutes scanning around, and with a little help from a lady who had already seen it but was trying to get a picture of it, I got a few frustratingly quick views in the binoculars but took a bit longer to get it in the telescope. It was NOT staying still and whenever I got onto it it would immediately change direction or dip out of sight behind one of the islands, and I'd lose it again. An additional frustration was that I was viewing it through a curved glass window and so it was pretty blurry when viewed at 20x magnification through my scope. It was a beautiful bird with a jet-black body, black and white wings and a pure white tail. It is a bit smaller than the Common Terns (Sterna hirundo) which nest in good numbers at Saltholme and which kept chasing it away whenever it tried to settle down on a post or on the ground.

After a few minutes I went outside to a place where, although slightly further away from the bird than I had been, I could see it clearly and have a chance of getting a picture of it. I was soon joined by another birder - a very friendly guy called Neil Martin who had come down from South Shields to see the bird. It was a lifer for him. Neil was a better photographer than me and, unlike me, was able to get several pictures of it. He very kindly agreed to let me put some of them on my blog (see below).

The White-winged Tern, known to most UK birders by its old name of White-winged Black Tern, is one of a small group of terns (the ones mentioned in the first paragraph) known as the marsh terns. This is because they are generally found in freshwater habitats rather than coastal ones like many of the other tern species. The marsh terns are smaller than most of the other terns, which are also in a different genus (Sterna), and usually feed on insects which they catch in flight or by picking them off the surface of the water. This is another difference between them and the Sterna terns which dive into the water to catch small fish. White-winged Terns are scarce visitors to the British Isles but are widespread across Africa, Asia and Australia. In Europe they a summer visitors only and are mostly restricted to Eastern European countries, such as Poland, Hungary, Ukraine and Russia.

This particular bird only stayed at Saltholme for two days before flying off somewhere else and not being seen again.

 All photos ⓒ Neil Martin 2019

Saturday, 22 June 2019

Another hidden gem

In my last blog I talked about nature growing through the cracks in an urban street (Finding a Rare Plant). Today I'm going to tell you about a different sort of crack in our modern built environment where nature is continuing to thrive, but on a somewhat larger scale.

A few days ago another ecologist told me about a bit of grassland that he had just discovered, between the two sides of a dual carriageway not far from Middlesbrough, which had four species of wild orchids along with lots of other interesting plants. This morning I decided to pay it a visit. It wasn't very easy to get to, as it's effectively the central reservation of a large A-road taking traffic towards Redcar and Saltburn from the west, but I was able to do it legally and without causing an accident.

It's about 340 metres long and less than 50 metres wide at its widest point but it is beautiful and it is very easy to forget that you are in the middle of a major road. I don't know if it has survived by accident or has been deliberately left, but whatever the case is, I am very happy it has been left.
In a couple of hours I identified 56 plant species (not including trees which I didn't look too closely at, as I was more interested in the grassland species today) including the four orchids that my friend told me about:- Lots of Common Spotted and Pyramidal Orchids, plus smaller numbers of Northern Marsh Orchids and Bee Orchids. There was a lot of a very pretty little star-shaped white flower called Fairy Flax (its less pretty-sounding alternative name, Purging Flax is reflected in its scientific name Linum catharticum). Although I called it grassland - and that is the correct name for it - in the main part of the area there is not actually that much grass growing. However, those grasses that you can see are pretty interesting, such as Quaking Grass (Briza media), with its delicate flower heads made up of lots of little 'rice-crispy-like' florets which shake in the slightest breeze (which is why I wasn't able to get a good picture of it).

The sedges - grass-like plants in the family Cyperaceae - are one of my favourite groups of plants and I was very pleased to find, as well as scattered plants of the common Glaucous Sedge (Carex flacca), a large patch of the less commonly seen Hairy Sedge (Carex hirta), which I haven't seen for quite a few years. It is unusual for a sedge in having hairy leaves (on both sides) and hairy fruits as well.

There were also a few birds there today, including a Whitethroat - a migratory warbler which I think was nesting close to where I found the Hairy Sedge.

Looking south across the site towards the west-bound carriageway,
which you can't see because of the lie of the land
Three lovely Common Spotted Orchids
(Dactylorhiza fuchsii)
A slightly out of focus Pyramidal Orchid
(Anacamptis pyramidalis)

A Bee Orchid (Ophrys apifera)
[photo taken at a different site]

The tiny little stars of Fairy Flax (aka Purging Flax) were everywhere
Hairy Sedge (Carex hirta) - as sedges go, this is a pretty photogenic one,
although I don't think I've managed to capture how
beautiful and distinctive it is in this photo 😊 
A Painted Lady butterfly (Vanessa cardui) on a Knapweed plant.
This species is a migrant to the UK and is unable to survive our winters,
so this individual  was probably in North Africa a few weeks ago