Wednesday, 13 November 2019

Happiness Hour at South Gare

I am in the middle of a training course about Mental Health First Aid, and after the last session our homework was to do a "Happiness Hour" - in other words, to spend an hour doing something that made us happy, and then to notice the effect it had on us.

I decided to spend an hour bird-watching as this usually makes me happy. So I went down to South Gare this morning with my binoculars, telescope and camera, and also a camping chair, a flask of coffee and lots of warm clothes. The plan was to sit at the end of the Gare for an hour or so, watching whatever birds I could see, and to just enjoy the experience.

It was a cold, clear and fairly still day - perfect conditions - but despite this I didn't see another person for the whole time I was sitting there. I did however see a few interesting birds. Scanning the sea surface with my telescope revealed at least five different Red-throated Divers and a couple of Guillemots - all in their winter plumage. In the case of the divers, the difference between the summer and the winter uniform is quite striking. In the summer they have bright red patches on their throats but these birds were all grey on the upper sides and white on the underparts and the face. However, it is the distinctive shape, with a needle-like upward-pointing bill and the pattern of the white and grey that distinguishes Red-throated Divers from other bird species that might be seen on the sea off the British coast in November.

While I was scanning I spotted a tight group of about 20 small black ducks flying north over the surface of the waves in the distance - Common Scoters. I was on the lookout to see if any of them had a flash of white in the wings which would have made them Velvet Scoter, but sadly no.

At one point while I was sitting remembering a previous sea-watching session at the Gare when a Purple Sandpiper had come and landed just in front of where I was sitting, I looked up and about a second later it happened again - a Purple Sandpiper flew in from the right and landed on the concrete about ten meters from me. It didn't stay there long before flying down onto the concrete blocks reinforcing the end of the gare but I was able to get some pictures of it, clinging on to the sloping surface and probing the crevices looking for small invertebrates to eat. Later I saw it (or possibly another one) round on the south side of the gare alongside a Turnstone, where I was able to get a nice picture showing the similarities and differences between the two species.

Both Purple Sandpiper (Calidris maritima) and Turnstone (Arenaria interpres) breed in northern latitudes, including the high arctic, with Turnstone occurring over a wider range both in the summer (it breeds as far north as Ellesmere Island and the north of Greenland, and as far south as the Baltic Sea) and in the winter, when it gets down to the southern tips of both Africa and Australia and about three-quarters of the way down South America. In the UK it is a very common species on coasts in the winter but can be seen at almost any time of year and in many different coastal habitats. It gets its name from its habit of turning over stones to find food. The Purple Sandpiper on the other hand is more restricted in its breeding range and also only reaches as far south as southern Spain and halfway down the east coast of the USA in the winter and doesn't occur in the Pacific or Indian Oceans at all. In the UK it is much harder to see than the Turnstone and is hardly ever seen away from the very edges of the water on rocky coasts and usually doesn't appear until late autumn.

So, back to the Happiness Hour - how did it make me feel? It did really make me feel happy. I spent an hour and a half sitting on a chair right at the edge of the land and didn't once think of Brexit, the General Election, Facebook (we-e-e-ell I might have looked at it once), money, work or any of the other things that I normally worry about. It was cold (although thankfully not rainy) but I was well protected from the cold, and I felt as if the cobwebs had been blown away. I have never been a massive fan of sea-watching but today I thought that I ought to do it more often.

Although it's not really purple in my view, I suppose I might concede
that the Purple Sandpiper is at least 'purplish' in colour
Purple Sandpipers really do like to be right next to the water.
Just before this photo was taken, the waves washed right over this rock,
and the bird too, but it just carried on as if nothing had happened

The Turnstone, or Ruddy Turnstone to give it its proper name, has ruddy-orange
colouration on its back in summer but in  winter, when we see them most,
they are much more dully coloured but still have bright orange legs

Purple Sandpipers and Turnstones are often seen together, although Turnstones
are much less fussy about the habitats they choose

Saturday, 12 October 2019

More about Grey Wagtails

In my last blog I told you about the Grey Wagtail that visited my newly made garden pond (which used to be a bath). See The making of a pond and an unexpected visitor. He/she has been back at least twice since then.

In that blog I didn't put a picture of a Grey Wagtail but yesterday when visiting friends I saw a card they had got with a nice painting of a Grey Wagtail on it, and a little bit of information about the species on the back and I thought I should share it here. It's by an artist called Madeleine Floyd and I really like her style.

The bird in the picture is an adult male, with his black throat patch and completely yellow underparts. The one that came to our garden was an immature bird and so it lacked the black throat and only had yellow the very bottom of its belly and underneath the tail. It also had a lovely peachy wash on its throat and breast, with the rest of its underparts being off-white.

In case you find it hard to read the writing on the back of the card in the picture below, what it says is "Grey Wagtail (Motacilla cinerea)  - The largely resident and elegant Grey Wagtail owns the longest tail of the Wagtail family and has black and smoky grey upperparts with a sulphur yellow chest. This attractive palette contributes to an air of a gentleman. His call can be loud and sharp but his song is made up of chirruping flutey notes and fast trills and warbles. He is happiest living beside a mountain stream, enjoying the rocky terrain, but can make his home in other waterside locations as long as there is fresh running water nearby, from which he can catch water insects and mayflies to feast on"

picture ©Madeleine Floyd

Tuesday, 1 October 2019

The making of a pond and an unexpected visitor

Sue and I have just had a lovely, unexpected and very welcome visitor in our garden - a young Grey Wagtail, drawn in by our new pond, which we only made on Saturday (today is Tuesday). I would call that a success for our (still developing) wildlife garden .

The pond is actually a bit unusual (those who know me will be surprised by that not one little bit) - it is made from an old bath which had been fly-tipped in our back alleyway and which I asked for when the council were getting it cleared away. I have been gradually developing a ‘wild area’ in one corner of our garden over the past year and a half. When we moved in, the entire garden was covered in concrete, wooden decking and gravel on top of blue plastic sheeting and it has been quite a job turning it into a nice garden (we’re not finished yet). This latest stage involved digging a trench about 2 metres long, 1 metre wide, and slightly less than half a metre deep and putting the bath into it (having first purchased the right size of plug - 75p from one of our local hardware shops). The soil here, below the top 6 inches or so, is full of broken bits of brick and so I needed to use a pickaxe to loosen it before I could make any headway through it. Below that, luckily starting at about the depth I needed the trench to be, is a hard layer which appears to be very dense clay and it is this that the bath, aka my pond liner, is now resting. I used some of the soil I had dug out to fill in the gaps around the sides of the bath as much as possible.

Once the bath was in place I put some soil, gravel, rocks and all the broken brick I had dug out, inside it to give insects and plants something to burrow/ root into and also to allow any non-aquatic creatures to climb out easily. Then I filled it using water from our rain-water butt, using two watering cans. See the attached photos that Sue took at different stages of the process. The final result was a rather eccentric type of small pond with a little rocky island and no plants growing in it yet. 

I was quite please with the end result but I wasn’t expecting it to attract any wildlife this soon after its creation. Add to that the fact that we have not had many birds of any sort in our garden over the summer, since we took most of the feeders down in the spring. I had only just put them back up again a few days before the creation of the pond and although I had seen evidence of birds visiting them (peck marks in the peanuts), I hadn’t actually seen anything on them until this afternoon. I looked out of our bedroom window (the best place to view the feeders) and saw, first two Collared Doves, then a bunch of House Sparrows on the ground and on the peanut feeder, and then I noticed something on the side of the new pond - a small bird, similar in size to the sparrows but with about half of its length taken up by a long tail, which it was constantly wagging up and down. A Grey Wagtail! Many of you will be familiar with Pied Wagtails - black, white and grey birds, common in towns and cities in the UK. Well, Grey Wagtails are similar in size and shape (with a slightly longer tail), but with a smooth grey back and varying amounts of yellow on the underparts. This particular one had bright yellow under its tailbase, and on its rump but the rest of its belly was whitish. Its throat and upper breast were a nice pale peachy buff colour, with no black patch, and it had a little pale line above each eye. This combination of features told me that it was an immature bird, hatched earlier this year. It is too early to be able to tell what sex it is, although next year, if it is a male, it will have a jet black throat and yellow from its throat to its tail.

Wagtails are closely related to pipits, and like them are fine-billed, insect-eating birds, but a generally much more colourful and interesting to look at than pipits, most of which are very similar looking streaky brown birds - the archetypal LBJs (Little Brown Jobs). There are three wagtail species which breed in Britain - the Pied Wagtail (which is actually the British and Irish race of the much more widespread White Wagtail), the Grey Wagtail, and the Yellow Wagtail. Many people, on seeing their first Grey Wagtail, mistake it for a Yellow. This is understandable, but Yellows are actually quite different - smaller, yellower and unlike Pieds and Greys, Yellow Wagtails are not here all the year round. Instead they migrate to Africa for the winter. They are also much scarcer than either of the other two species and are not usually found in towns, preferring instead wet grassland habitats and marshes.

Grey Wagtails like fast flowing upland streams, but also any kind of watery habitat, including urban canals and park lakes. When I was young I would have expected to have to go to a wild, hilly place to be able to see one - in fact I saw my first one in the hills of the Peak District in Derbyshire at the age of 16. I was very excited. Now, however, they can be found over most of lowland Britain, although you are still more likely to see one near a fast flowing stream than an urban garden pond/bath, and I admit that I was almost as excited to see my most recent Grey Wagtail as I was to see that first one, all those years ago.

I wasn't able to get a picture of today's bird, but click here to see some pictures and some more information about Grey Wagtails - Grey Wagtail Bird Facts - RSPB

The bath - prior to being given a new function
Preparing the ground
Ready to be filled
The ceremonial filling of the pond
The finished product

All photos © Sue Conroy

Saturday, 21 September 2019

Birding the 'In Between Time'

The autumn has started and so Sue and I took a trip north of the Tees to one of our favourite birding haunts - Saltholme RSPB reserve. The first thing that had changed since we last went birding north of the river is that the Tees Transporter Bridge is closed while essential engineering and maintenance works are taking place, so we had to drive the long way round (if you don’t know about the transporter bridge, read more about it in this Wikipedia article - Tees Transporter Bridge).

You have probably noticed that I haven’t written a blog post for a while. One reason for this is that for birds (or rather, for birdwatchers) the summer is actually quite a quiet time (for birds it's actually a very busy time - see below for why). The winter brings all sorts of interesting species from northern latitudes that come here for our warm (really!!) weather. The spring is full of migrants  arriving back from Africa (the ones for whom our winter is just not warm enough) and nearly everything is trying to find mates, territories and nesting sites, and, mostly, making a big noise about it. This is the great time for birding by ear as  the territorial songs of all the small birds are unique to each species and so birdwatching is often just bird listening. In the autumn birds are heading back to their wintering grounds and this is the best time for really rare things to turn up, particularly on the coast and on offshore islands, as everything is on the move and migrating birds are at the mercy of fast-moving weather systems -  especially during October when places like the Isles of Scilly and the Shetlands can play host to birds from North America and Siberia at the same time - as well as (in the case of the Scillies) hundreds of birders hoping for a few lifers. 

In the summer, however, all of the non-breeding migrants and most of the rarities have gone to their nesting grounds, and all of our breeding birds (both migrants and residents) have finished singing, nest-building and (mostly) fighting off their rivals and are settling down to brood their eggs and then raise their chicks. To do this successfully (without being eaten by a predator) they generally try to make themselves as inconspicuous as possible, singing (if at all) only in the very early morning and not sitting out in the open very much. 

In the case of ducks, they have even more reason to be inconspicuous in summer as this is the time they moult their flight feathers and are flightless for about a month (you could say that they are doing essential engineering and maintenance work on their feathers). The normally colourful males (drakes, to use the proper term) lose much of their bright feathering and go into a scruffy looking plumage called eclipse plumage. This makes them less visible to predators and more likely to survive to breed again next year. In some species, including our most familiar duck, the Mallard, the eclipse drakes look very similar to the females.

Once we arrived at the reserve it was obvious that the hot, sunny weather, and it being a Saturday, had brought the visitors out in large numbers as the car park was very full - unlike the main lake, which had been partly drained so that, yes you guessed it, essential engineering and maintenance works could be carried out. In this case they are creating some new islands for nesting birds such as Common Terns and deepening the lake in places, as well as installing a new sluice-gate to enable them to lower the water levels in late summer, leaving large muddy areas for wading birds such as Black-tailed Godwits passing through on their southerly migration.

The diggers were working in the middle of the lake, presumably taking advantage of the dry weather and so there weren’t many birds to see from the visitors’ centre - mostly just small birds such as Great Tits, Tree Sparrows and Goldfinches on the bird feeders, so we headed down the track to the Saltholme Pools Hide. On the way there Sue spotted a Kestrel hovering in the distance and we also saw small flocks of three species of geese - Greylags, Barnacles and Canadas. These flocks are all descended from birds released from captivity (‘feral’ is the correct scientific term) but they are still nice to see nonetheless, especially the Barnacle Geese, which look like smaller, neater, black and white versions of the more familiar Canada Goose and are hard to see as a native bird in Britain unless you make a special trip to the north Cumbrian coast and the west of Scotland in the winter.

When we got to the hide there didn’t seem to be much happening, bird-wise, except for about six common species of ducks (Mallard, Gadwall, Shoveler, Wigeon, Tufted Duck and a single female Pintail, if you’re interested), reasonable numbers of Lapwings and a few Little Grebes. There may  have been a couple more duck species to be found but we were distracted when another birder pointed out what was definitely the bird of the day for me, and a lifer for Sue (woo hoooo) - sat on a low post on the other side of the nearest bit of water was our smallest bird of prey, a Merlin. This small falcon has been hanging around Saltholme for at least the last ten days, apparently mostly feeding on Migrant Hawker dragonflies, which, along with the smaller Common and Ruddy Darters were very much in evidence today (sunny summer weather and watery places are usually good for seeing dragonflies).

After the Merlin flew off, showing its distinctive pointy-winged falcon shape, we headed to the Paddy’s Pool hide where we got fairly distant views of our fourth goose of the day - a small group of at least 13 (maybe up to 20 but some were hidden behind grazing cows - part of the management regime here) Pink-footed Geese. This group is a tiny fore-runner of the huge flocks that will be seen in different parts of the UK in the winter. Pinkfeet (as birders tend to call them) breed in Iceland, Greenland and Spitsbergen but leave those places in late summer to spend the winter further south, including the UK (especially Norfolk, Lancashire and Aberdeenshire where very large flocks can be seen). We couldn’t see the pink feet on these birds as they were too distant, and in any case they are not the only British goose with pink feet. Instead what clinched the identification was the small compact shape compared to the nearby Canadas and Greylags, their dark-looking heads and their small dark bills (the bill actually has a bit of pink on it but you can’t see it at any distance).

From Paddy’s Pool we continued our circuit of the main lake, on which we saw a Great Crested Grebe halfway through its transition from handsome chestnut summer plumage to sleek grey and white winter plumage (and so, neither handsome nor sleek), to the Wildlife Watchpoint hide. A couple of Moorhens, a Coot and a Little Egret were the only waterbirds here with a few Blue Tits, Great Tits, Goldfinches and another Tree Sparrow on the feeders so we headed back to the visitors centre and the end of our visit to Saltholme.

On the way home we went to Greatham Creek and Seal Sands but there was nothing particularly earth-shattering there so I will tell you about those places in a future post.

I called this post 'Birding the In Between Time' because it really felt like that today - in between summer and autumn with birds in between plumages and even the place we went to being in between one thing and the next. However, it was a good day's birding with some very nice birds seen - particularly the Merlin of course (unfortunately it was too distant to get a photograph of but if you go to Saltholme's Twitter page ( and scroll down you can find some pictures and video of it - you can also see what the main lake looks like at the moment and read about the work going on.

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

Thursday, 20 June 2019

Finding a rare plant

A couple of weeks ago Sue and I were visiting friends in a small market town in County Durham in the north of England. We’d been for a walk and were nearly back at their house when I noticed an interesting-looking little plant growing between the cobblestones at the edge of a terraced street. At first I couldn’t figure out what it was, although it looked vaguely familiar, so I took a few specimens [NOTE - it was obviously an annual plant growing in some abundance - at least 500 plants in my estimation - so I knew that taking a few specimens would not harm the population].

By the time we got back to our friends’ house I already had a hunch that it might be something called Four-leaved Allseed (Polycarpon tetraphyllum) - a plant I had only seen a couple of times four years ago. Being away from home and my own books, and without even a handlens on me, was a drawback, although the pictures I found on the internet, and in the wildflower book my friends had, certainly looked right for that species.

The problem was that this was a) a tiny little insignificant-looking plant with no petals present and very little in the way of distinguishing features and b) it was occurring a few hundred miles north of its only native populations in the UK (on the south coast of England) and would, judging from the information available online, be the first record as a wild plant for the whole north-east of England, so I knew I had to be careful about jumping to conclusions as there was quite a high chance
it could be something else altogether.

The next step was to consult more experienced botanists than myself so I took some pictures and emailed them to a friend of mine who confirmed that it was as rare as I thought it was but wasn’t able to comment on the identification, being even less familiar with the plant than I was.

Later that night, when I was at home in Middlesbrough, with my own books and handlens I was able to have a proper look at it and by now was 99% certain that I was right, so I emailed the official botanical recorder for County Durham, with my photos and a description of the plant, where it was growing, and why I thought it was Polycarpon tetraphyllum.

I then bit my nails (metaphorically) for a week until I heard back from him - the delay was caused by a) me getting his email address wrong the first time and then b) the fact that he was on holiday. His first email was not encouraging - he was only looking at the photos on his phone (he was still travelling back from his holiday) but he didn’t think it looked right and thought it might be a Sedum (Stonecrop) instead. However, later the same day he emailed back after looking at the photos on his computer and was starting to think that I might be right after all, but only having seen it on the Isles of Scilly himself he sent the pictures to another botanist for his opinion.

Two more days of waiting and then another email to say that the other botanist also thought it looked good for Polycarpon but that I should send some actual specimens of the plant (rather than just photographs) off to one of the BSBI (Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland) referees for final confirmation, given that it would be a first for the region.

One of the advantages of being a member of the BSBI is that you have access to a network of real experts - the BSBI referees - who can be consulted on questions of identification regarding any plant found in the wild in the UK or Ireland. Usually you have to send them specimens of the plant in the post - either fresh specimens or pressed and dried. Details of which referee to send your plant to are found in the BSBI Yearbook which is sent out to all the members. Most referees specialise in particular families, or even genera (the plural of genus) of plants, but there are some broader categories, such as 'Garden Shrubs', 'non-British Arctic-Alpines' and 'Plants in a vegetative state (including winter twigs)' which have their own referees. Many of the referees are people who have literally written the book on their chosen plant subjects.

In my case I was advised to send some fresh specimens (which were still in good condition despite a week in a tupperware box in my fridge) off to the referee for 'Aliens' (although this sounds very funny it just means plants that are not native to or long-established in, the British Isles). This was because, although P. tetraphyllum is native to the UK it is not native to the north of England and also there may be other species of the same genus growing in gardens that could possibly be my plant. I took about half of the material I had and sent it in a jiffy envelope to the referee in question, who lives in Somerset, and then pressed the rest in order to make a herbarium sheet .

This morning I checked my emails and there was one from the referee confirming conclusively that my initial hunch had been right and that my plant was indeed Polycarpon tetraphyllum.

As you will see from the photos below this is definitely a "botanists' plant" and not one that I would expect a casual observer to get excited about, or even notice. It is however a pretty little thing, particularly when you look at the fruits through 10x or 20x handlens. Then you can see the star-shaped cross-section and the dark green lines along the vertical edges of the fruit.
Polycarpon tetraphyllum - Four-leaved Allseed on my friend Daniel's hand

Yes, it's just a tiny little weedy plant growing at the edge of an urban street
A slightly closer view of one plant. 

Sunday, 31 March 2019

Cycle ride to the sea

Hi everyone. Sorry about the long gap between blog posts. I’m not sure why I haven’t been writing anything for the past couple of months - it’s probably because I just haven’t been out and about much. That definitely changed today when Sue and I went for a cycle ride to the coast at Redcar and back, coming a slightly longer way on the way home - we totalled about 35 km (nearly 22 miles).

It really felt like Spring  - we were serenaded by birds singing and many wildflowers were visible along the sides of the road.

The birds that we heard included Chiff-chaffs, with their metronome-like ‘chiff chaff’ song (from which they get their name), the musical songs of Robins, Blackbirds and Song Thrushes, Chaffinches sounding like a fast bowler taking a run up, the fast, frenetic song of the Wren (much louder than you might expect from such a small bird) and the ethereal, wistful warble of a distant Skylark, high up in the sky over a yellow field of Oilseed Rape. I thought we might hear our first Blackcaps of the year (flutey, melodious) but sadly it was not to be - just a little too early maybe.

After hitting the coast at Redcar we cycled south along the seafront to Marske and stopped for tea and biscuits on a bench where we could look down on the beach. Sanderlings like little white clockwork toys entertained us, while a small flock of Turnstones were more sedate. Just as we were about to leave, two immature Herring Gulls drew our attention to a distant Red-throated Diver (still in its winter plumage, so no red-throat today) which had caught a fish that they were trying to steal.

Early spring flowers were everywhere - white blossom of Blackthorn in the hedges, Apple and Cherry blossom in the gardens of the houses; creamy White Deadnettle with their hooded flowers and yellow cushions of Lesser Celandine flowers in patches of woodland, and the white fuzz of Danish Scurvy-grass along the big main road. 

This last species (which, despite the name, is a member of the cabbage family, with tiny white, cross-shaped flowers, and not a grass at all) is a ‘halophyte’ (salt-loving species) which in Britain used to be found only on the coast. In the last forty-or-so years, however, it has spread inland, mostly along main roads. This is because the edges of large roads now are very salty as a result of gritting during winter (note for non-UK residents in case this doesn’t happen in your countries - when icy conditions are expected here, the local councils and highways authorities spread coarse salt, known as ‘grit’, on road surfaces to create a saline solution which has a lower freezing point than pure water). While preparing to write this blog-post I discovered something that makes me suspect that many people outside the UK (where we have pretty mild winters) will not be familiar with this practice. Below -4ºC (24.8ºF) salt becomes less effective and below -10ºC (14ºF) it is completely ineffective.

The first image below shows the botanical recording area of North-east Yorkshire. Each red square represents a 2x2km square, known as a tetrad, in which Danish Scurvy-grass has been recorded by botanists. The second image shows the same map with the approximate locations of the major urban areas marked on, as well as approximate routes of sections of two of the major roads (the A19 and the A64). The degree of correlation is quite marked. I could also have marked on other settlements such as Great Ayton, Guisborough and Staithes, and roads such as the A170 going west from Pickering. And this map only shows where the species has been recorded by skilled botanists, and only at a fairly coarse scale. I believe that if it were possible to show everywhere this plant really grows, at a fine scale (say 1x1m), I believe that the resulting map would be a very accurate outline of our road network.

Saturday, 26 January 2019

New windscreen for the Col'n'Suemobile

On New Year's Eve while we were driving down to my brother's house in Essex our windscreen (that's windshield for my north American readers 😊) was hit by a stone and chipped. I didn't get round to phoning the insurance company about it till yesterday and I was told that because of the size and location of the chip (bigger than a 5p piece and in the middle of the windscreen on the driver's side) it could not be repaired and the glass had to be replaced as soon as possible.

So this afternoon a nice man from Autoglass came and replaced the windscreen and the wipers too (it is recommended that you get new wipers when you replace the glass so I opted for that as they were going to need replacing soon anyway).

I figured that I might not be the only one who found the whole process interesting, having never seen a windscreen being replaced before (I'd seen one being repaired when the chip was smaller than this one), so here are some photos I took, with the rest of the story being told in the captions.

Many thanks to the nice man for doing a great job and for letting me take photos and write about the whole process.
Before - the little white mark you can see just above the steering wheel is NOT the chip -
it's about 8 inches to the right of that and is not visible in this picture
This is the best picture I could get of the chip - it was bigger than a penny and smaller than a 10p piece
The nice man's van - the thing on the top is a canopy that can be used if it's raining

The first stage is to put in seat protectors - presumably that's in case the glass shatters while it's being taken out 
This is what I am calling the 'glue-cutter' - I'm not sure what the proper name for it is. The string goes around the outside of the windscreen (I didn't see how he got it through from the inside to the outside) and then the nice man attached a handle to this apparatus and wound it in. The string cuts through the old glue as it is wound in
This is the string being pulled through the gap that the nice man must have made (but I didn't see it)
The 'glue-cutter' in action - the last bit was a bit tricky and took a bit of effort. After getting the glass off he told me that he could tell that it had been replaced at least once before (before we owned the car) - this may have been why he had some difficulty getting it off
This is what a car looks like with no windscreen 
After the glass was taken out, he used a sort of chisel to get all the old glue out and then he applied a layer of primer to the glass and one to the car (this photo) and then a layer of glue to the glass (which is basically the thick rubber seal you can see on any car) 
The new glass waiting to be installed (but before the glue was applied)
The last stage - this is the new glass being held in placed by two sort of sucker things - again I don't know what the correct name is so 'sucker things' will have to do.

Sunday, 13 January 2019

South Gare in winter - birds that look a bit like sparrows but aren't

On Friday I went to South Gare for the first time in what seems like ages. At first I didn't see very much, apart from the ever present gulls, although there had been reports of a few interesting birds there over the past few weeks. 
After walking around the salt marsh near the end of the Gare, and tottering around on the rocks, I was standing at the edge of the beach when I realised that just a few metres from me there was a small flock of Snow Buntings (Plectrophanax nivalis), feeding among the Marram Grass and scattered stones. I followed them for ten minutes or so as the worked their way along the breakwater, and managed to get a lot of quite good photos. 

In the summer (the breeding season) the males of this sparrow-sized species are very neat black and white birds with black bills. The females are duller and browner but still with a lot of white in the plumage. In the winter they both become browner, with yellowy-orange patches, and the bills turn yellow. Although about 60 pairs of Snow Buntings breed in the UK (at the tops of mountains in Scotland), most people here only see them in autumn and winter, when about 10-15,000 birds  come into the country. They can mostly be found at the coast. The flock I saw (about 20-30 birds) has been in the same rough location for at least the last three weeks. 

After leaving the Snow Buntings to get on with their feeding (small birds at this time of year have to feed pretty much constantly during daylight hours to stay alive), I managed to get some good views, and a few photos, of two other sparrow-like birds, one very common one, and one scarcer (although on this occasion more numerous) species.

The common one is the Linnet (Carduelis cannabina), which breeds all over the country and can be found in quite big flocks in the winter. They are closely related to Goldfinches (Carduelis carduelis) although very different-looking. Male Linnets have bright pink chests during the breeding season but lose the colour in the winter, when they look very like the streaky brown female, although with a grey head. I saw only a few Linnets on this trip - probably no more than ten, although it is hard to estimate numbers precisely when they are flying around in a flock with a very similar looking species, as these were.

The other bird, normally much scarcer, is the Twite (Carduelis flavirostris). About 10,000 pairs breed in the UK, mostly in northern and western Scotland, and north-west Ireland, with some also breeding in Snowdonia (North Wales) and in the Pennines in England. As with the Snow Bunting, numbers are boosted in winter with birds coming into the British Isles from more northerly climes. An estimated 100-150,000 birds spend the winter here, again mostly very near to the sea. They are small streaky brown finches very like a female Linnet but with a yellow bill and an unstressed buff-coloured throat. Males have a pink rump, although this can be hard to see. The name comes from the thin drawn out flight call, which sounds a bit like the word 'twite'. I reckoned that there were at least 40 Twite flying around the end of the Gare, although there might have been many more.

Snow Buntings can be very hard to see as they are well camouflaged against the rocks and sand,
and they often feed very quietly and inconspicuously
When they do fly, the white on the wing can be very obvious
A lovely view like this takes a certain amount of patience. I was extremely pleased  with this shot

Linnets are surprisingly pretty birds, even in winter, when seen close up.
This is a male, with his grey head
The Twite is a very flighty bird, as is the closely related Linnet, and so I was very happy to
get even this poor quality shot of three birds. 
In this zoomed-in version of the previous picture, showing the left-hand bird of the three, the unstreaked, pinky-buff
throat, the yellow bill, and the pink rump (which show that this is a male) can be seen. Both Twite and Linnet have
some white in the wings, which can also be seen here