Thursday, 29 October 2020

Birding on my local patch

 After dropping the car off for a service this morning I decided to walk home via my favourite little local birding 'patch' - along the lower reaches of Ormesby Beck in North Ormesby. This is a fairly unremarkable-looking little stream, with lots of the problems you might associate with urban rivers and brooks - poor water quality, large amounts of rubbish washed downstream, a straightened course running mostly in a concrete channel, development right up to the riverbanks - but even so, over the last few years I have seen or heard at least 48 species of bird along the beck and in the grassland and woods next to it (just under 10 hectares (about 24 acres) in area).

This morning my bird-list was about half that total but it included several species which are a bit special or which I don't see very often in the area. The first bird I saw when I looked over the concrete wall next to a beck-side pub (the Navigation Inn) was a Little Egret - an elegant white heron. Unfortunately I didn't have my camera with me but was able to get three rather blurry photos with my phone which still manage to give an impression of how unnatural looking the channel is at that point, with steep walls, discarded tyres and other rubbish. You can also see, from the different position of the Egret's head and neck in the three photos that it appears to be actively hunting, so there is obviously some prey, probably small fish, there for it to catch.

 A little further down the beck from where I first saw the Egret, in a slightly more natural stretch (with vegetated banks and a little bit of tidal mud, although still in a straightened channel with lots of rubbish) I saw it again but this time flying away along with a Grey Heron and a Redshank. The Redshank, which is a fairly common wading bird in the Sandpiper family, was only the second one I have seen on my local patch and I was later able to watch it for several minutes on the mud at the point where another beck, Middle Beck, comes out of its underground culvert to join Ormesby Beck above ground.

After wandering along the beck for a while, watching an over-excited flock of Long-tailed Tits (joined at times by Blackbirds, Robins, Great Tits and Blue Tits) I came back to the mouth of Middle Beck and was really pleased to see a Grey Wagtail - the first one that I have recorded here, although I've seen them several times in North Ormesby, including in my own garden (see this blog entry from last year - This pretty little, long-tailed bird is often misidentified by inexperienced birders as the much scarcer Yellow Wagtail, as it has a lot of yellow in its underparts. However, as well as being an unlikely visitor to an urban stream such as this, Yellow Wagtails are summer visitors to the UK and should all be on their way to Africa by now.

The next exciting thing I spotted was a Kingfisher. Although I've seen Kingfishers on this stretch of the beck on a few occasions, it has previously always been birds flying along the river, and so I didn't have any definite evidence that they were using it as anything other than a convenient corridor to fly along between better patches of habitat. However, today was the first time that I have seen one actually diving into the beck, proving that they do linger here to hunt for the little fish that they live on.

Having seen or heard 20 species of bird along 500m of the beck channel (going downstream from the Navigation Inn, Marsh Road, North Ormesby, if you want to look at it in Google Maps), I headed towards home adding a further three species to the day's list on the way - Magpie (much vilified, very common, but nonetheless beautiful), a very fast-flying Sparrowhawk, and my first Common Teal for the patch since 2017. The Teal was a male with his lovely chestnut head and bottle green 'eye-mask' and he made a great end to an unplanned bit of patch birding.

Ivy - Villain or Hero

My October article for The Tees Online has just been published ( but to make it easier for you, here is the text plus a few more photos.

"October Nature: Ivy - Hero or Villain?

What comes to mind when you think of Ivy? For many people it will bring up images of a pesky climbing weed that strangles trees, damages walls and fences and is no good for anything.

In fact Ivy, or Hedera helix to give it its scientific name, is a wonderful and unjustly vilified  plant that is great for wildlife in many different ways. 

Firstly, because it flowers in autumn it is a very important source of nectar for many species of insect at a time of year when few other plants are flowering and insects would really struggle without it. Although the flowers are more inconspicuous than those of many species, being mostly  pale green and lacking petals, a small patch of ivy can have hundreds of flower heads and provides food for large numbers of bees, wasps, hoverflies, butterflies and many other insects.

The insignificant looking flowers of Ivy are a rich source of 

nectar for insects late in the year in the UK

Many species of hoverflies, some of which have evolved to look like wasps to 

scare off potential predators, feed on Ivy flowers in the autumn

Later in the winter the flowers will develop into black berries which will help birds such as Blackbirds, Woodpigeons, Redwings and Fieldfares (the last two being migratory members of the Thrush family) survive the harshest months of the year.

In the winter months, patches of ground covered in Ivy may remain frost free when nearby areas are frozen solid. This allows birds and small mammals to continue searching for food in the leaf litter during icy weather. Also, its twisting, intertwining branches and stems, and its evergreen leaves, create many niches and hollows in which birds and other animals such as Wood Mice can find shelter from severe weather. In the spring and summer many birds build their nests in ivy to raise their young.

The commonest accusation levelled against this great plant is that it strangles trees. Ivy uses trees, to give it support and allow it to reach up towards the sunlight but it is not a parasite which feeds off them (unlike another, much more popular, evergreen plant - Mistletoe), and its presence is not a sign of an unhealthy tree. However, trees don’t live forever and have a natural life cycle involving different stages. Ivy will sometimes play a role in helping an old tree move along this continuum, from the vertical to the horizontal, as it were, and may bring trees down by acting as a sail during high winds, or by holding a great weight of snow after blizzards. This still doesn’t mean that Ivy is a villain though, as dead wood is an important part of a woodland ecosystem and the toppling of trees opens up the canopy, allowing sunlight to reach the forest floor and exposing bare soil. This lets plants and animals flourish that otherwise wouldn’t be able to compete.

But surely Ivy is still bad for buildings, I hear you say. Well, a three year study carried out jointly by Oxford University and English Heritage showed that, while it could make existing damage worse, it also had a positive effect in some cases by keeping walls warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer and by protecting them from salt and airborne pollution.

The familiar lobed leaves, which give the name to several 

other unrelated plants (such as Ivy-leaved Toadflax 

and Ivy-leaved Speedwell) are found on young plants only. 

More mature plants have simple oval-shaped leaves

Finally, Ivy features prominently in folklore. Bacchus, the Roman god of wine, the grape-harvest and fertility, is often depicted wreathed in Ivy as well as the more predictable grape-vines. It also symbolised intellectual prowess in ancient Rome and Ivy wreaths were given to the winners of poetry contests. It was also a symbol of fidelity and even today it is common for bridal bouquets to contain a sprig of this amazing, interesting and important evergreen plant."

The oval shape of the leaves, as well as the presence
of flowers, shows that this is a mature Ivy plant

A Honey-bee (Apis mellifera) feeding on Ivy flowers

Ivy berries just starting to form. Later in the
Winter these will be black

Wednesday, 30 September 2020

A couple of articles I wrote - plus some extra photos

Hi all, for the last couple of months I have been writing a monthly 'nature column' for my local on-line Newspaper. 

The first one I wrote was in August. It had the title "August - a month of two seasons" and in it I talked about how, in the UK at least, August is both part of summer (with hot weather and lots of flowers still blooming) and part of autumn (if you're a migrating wader for example). To read about that go to :

This month's one, which went live on the 25th of September, was called Ducks, ducks and 'ducks'. In it I propound the theory that, despite what the books will tell you, there are three kinds of ducks:- Ducks that are Mallards, ducks that aren't Mallards, and ducks that aren't ducks at all. To read about that and to see if you agree with me, go to:

And now here are some of the photos that I didn't have space to include in the articles:-

Great Willowherb at Saltholme RSPB, 19th Aug 2020

Toadflax near Redcar, 23rd Aug 2020

Bar-tailed Godwits at South Gare 30th Sept 2018

A (slightly blurry) Black-tailed Godwit, still in its brick-red
breeding plumage on the way from its northern nesting
grounds to its wintering area (photo taken at Greatham Creek, 
Teesside, 15th August 2020)

A Grey Plover changing out of summer (breeding) plumage during 
its autumn migration - Seal Sands, Teesside, 15th Aug 2020

Coot at Coatham Marsh, Redcar, 13th Sept 2020

A Mallard with some domestic genes.
Albert Park, Middlesbrough 12th Sept 2020

A male Mallard in 'eclipse plumage' (see Species Spotlight - Day 31 - Shoveler 
for an explanation of this). Despite his unusual look, this is an ordinary
Mallard, not a domestic one

Male and female Gadwalls at Coatham Marsh, Redcar, 13th Sept 2020

A Little Grebe (not a duck) and a male Gadwall (a duck that isn't a
Mallard) - Coatham Marsh, Redcar 13th Sept 2020

Saturday, 19 September 2020

Species Spotlight - No. 32 - Pied Wagtail

After a little break the Species Spotlight is back, although from now on it won't be every day. Today's species is a bird that is still quite common in towns and cities in the UK - the Pied Wagtail (Motacilla alba yarrellii).

When I was young (probably before I started calling myself a birdwatcher (so really very young)) I used to think that Pied Wagtails and Magpies were big and small versions of the same thing. They are both black and white with long tails after all. However, as you might already know, they are not closely related at all. Magpies are large, noisy (and disliked by many people - unjustly in my view) birds in the crow family, while Pied Wagtails are friendly little things which are often seen in urban areas.

You may have noticed that the scientific name that I have given above has three parts instead of the usual two. This is because our Pied Wagtail is actually the British and Irish sub-species of a much more widespread species called the White Wagtail. The first part of the name, Motacilla, is the genus to which all the wagtails belong. The second part, alba, is the specific name for White Wagtail, and the third part, yarrellii, is the name of the subspecies which in English is called Pied Wagtail, and is named after the prominent English zoologist William Yarrell (1784-1856) who wrote, among many other volumes, A History of British Birds (first published in 1843).

Pied Wagtails (and all White Wagtails) have a distinctive two-note flight call - chizzik- leading to them being called (by some birders) Chiswick Flyovers. Another interesting fact about them is that in winter,  flocks often congregate together in town centres where they roost overnight in street trees or on the window-ledges of buildings.

The dark grey (rather than black) on the back of this
Pied Wagtail indicates that it is a female
(Photo by Colin Conroy, Stewarts Park, Middlesbrough, Sept 2020)

Saturday, 5 September 2020

Species Spotlight Challenge - Day 31 - Shoveler

For the last day of my 'Species Spotlight Challenge' I have chosen a very distinctive-looking duck, which is surprisingly common in the UK, considering that there is a good chance that, unless you are a birdwatcher, you have never seen one or perhaps even heard of the species. It is the Northern Shoveler (Spatula clypeata). As you will see from the first photo below (which is a free to use image from the internet because I couldn't get a picture of a male in its 'normal' plumage today- read on to find out why that is) the male shoveler, for most of the year, is a handsome duck (a bit smaller than a Mallard) with an irridescent green head, mostly white underparts except for the deep rusty-red patch on the side, and darker upperparts.  Oh, and it has an enormous, weird-looking, flattened bill, which is where both the English name 'Shoveler' and the scientific name for the genus (Spatula) come from. 

The bill is specially adapted (with small comb-like 'lamellae' on its edges) to filter food out of the water  as the bird swings its head from side to side just below the surface. They breed in open wetlands and marshes with shallow muddy pools (which contain lots of the invertebrates and plants on which they feed). Shovelers are quite widespread as a breeding bird in the UK, with their core areas being the North Kent marshes, the Ouse Washes in East Anglia and the wetlands around the Humber estuary. The population is swelled, and their distribution expanded, in the winter, when our breeding birds are joined by those from other parts of Europe. This is when you are much more likely to see them - even in the middle of London where they can be observed at the London Wetland Centre (owned and managed by the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust) in Barnes, a short bus ride from Hammersmith Tube Station. They can also be found in large numbers at reservoirs such as Abberton in Essex and Rutland Water in the Midlands.

Female Shovelers and 'eclipse' males (I'll explain this term in a minute) would look quite like a female Mallard (i.e. streaky brown) if it wasn't for the whopping 'schnozz' of a bill. 

A male shoveler in full breeding plumage

Eclipse Plumage

Ducks are unusual among birds in that they moult all their flight feathers at the same time (just after breeding, in late summer) and so become flightless for about a month or so. This makes them more vulnerable to predators and so the brightly coloured males of many species, including the familiar Mallard and today's spotlight species the Shoveler, have a different plumage at this time of year which makes them look more like the females and so less vulnerable to being caught and eaten. It also explains why I couldn't get a nice picture of a male in its typical plumage when I went out to Portrack Marsh today. 

There are usually subtle differences which the experienced eye can use to tell which are females and which are eclipse males. In the case of Shovelers these males generally have darker heads, more rufous underparts and they retain a sky-blue patch on the wing (normally only visible in flight). In the photos below, I think the first one shows a female and the other two (the same bird in different postures) are of a male. 

Female Shoveler at Portrack Marsh, Teesside (5th Sept 2020)

Eclipse male Shoveler at Portrack Marsh, Teesside (5th Sept 2020) - hiding 
his distinctive bill but showing him using it to capture small food items

The same male Shoveler with a winter-plumage Black-headed Gull

Friday, 4 September 2020

Species Spotlight Challenge - Day 30 - Lapwing

The Northern Lapwing (Vanellus vanellus), usually just known as the Lapwing here in the UK, where it is the only kind of lapwing  regularly occurring, is a wading bird in the Plover family (I talked about this family in the blog on Ringed Plover a few days ago - Day 17 - Ringed Plover).

This species has been known by a lot of different names in different parts of the British Isles over the years, including Peewit, Pyewipe, Tuit (all being renderings of the thin, high-pitched call) and Green Plover. This last, is what my Irish father called it when I was young, along with several other 'folk' names for birds - Crane for Grey Heron, Skaul Crow for Hooded Crow and Black Hag for both Great Cormorant and European Shag. When I started to become a fully fledged birder as a teenager, he stopped using these names, in favour of what I thought (and I'm sure told him) were the 'proper names'. Now, several decades later, I regret this and can see that these 'folk' names for birds actually make the language richer, as well as being a reminder of a time when ordinary 'folk' actually knew what these birds were, even if they didn't know the 'official' names for them.

The Green Plover (or Peewit, or Pyewipe, or Northern Lapwing) was once an extremely common bird which would be seen all over the country, both as a breeder in the summer and in huge flocks on arable fields in the winter along with its cousin the Golden Plover. Numbers have plummeted in recent decades and Lapwing is now on the Red List of Birds of Conservation Concern (BOCC4) because of the extent of the decline. It can still be seen fairly easily at the coast or at wetland nature reserves (such as the RSPB's Saltholme reserve, where these photos were taken), but the overall numbers are much lower than they would have been forty or fifty years ago.

Thursday, 3 September 2020

Species Spotlight Challenge - Day 29 - Prickly Saltwort

Prickly Saltwort (Salsola kali (or Kali turgidum according to some authorities)) is a succulent plant found on sandy shores round most of the coasts of Britain and Ireland. It is well adapted to living in these places, where what water there is is very salty and drains away quickly. It has fleshy leaves, which store water (like our spotlight species from Day 25 Sea Rocket, which grows in very similar places). The thick waxy cuticle and the rounded shape of the leaves (which minimises the surface area) help reduce the amount of water lost from the leaves by evaporation. The roots of the plant extend a long way downwards (to reach the water table deep underground) and horizontally, just below the sand surface, to allow the plant to capture as much water as possible from summer showers before it drains away. The sprawling, prostrate growth of Prickly Saltwort, and the rounded shape of the leaves, as well as (probably) the extensive root system, give it protection against the strong winds and waves that are frequent at the seashore - a taller plant, or one with broad leaves or shallow roots would easily be damaged or blown away in stormy weather.

The succulent tissues of Prickly Saltwort (as well as several similar salt-loving species) contain a lot of salty water and this led, in medieval times and even in the early industrial era, to the plant being very important in the making of both glass and soap. The whole plant was burned and the ashes mixed with water. Sodium from the salt in the plant's tissues would dissolve in the water, making a solution of sodium carbonate and the water was then evaporated off, leaving sodium carbonate crystals. These crystals were known as 'soda ash', also called 'alkali' (from the Arabic word for the substance - al-qali). In medieval times the name 'kali' was used for Prickly Saltwort and many similar  species. This is still reflected today in both of the scientific names for the plant (botanical authorities differ as to which is the most appropriate name to use so I have given both above).  


Wednesday, 2 September 2020

Species Spotlight Challenge - Day 28 - Two moths - Angle Shades and Dusky Thorn

 I decided to put the moth trap out again last night, for the first time in a little while ( the gap was mostly because of the rain and wind and only occasionally because I didn't want to get up early in the morning to empty the trap).

More than half of the moths I caught were a single species (and one that I have talked about in this blog before - Day 2 - Large Yellow Underwing), but I did catch three more unusual ones - an Angle Shades (Phlogophora meticulosa) and two Dusky Thorns (Ennomos fuscantaria). Although I've caught Angle Shades a couple of times I've never even seen Dusky Thorn before and had to consult the books to arrive at the correct identification (NOTE: there are several fairly similar species of Thorns so if any real moth experts out there think I've got this one wrong, please let me know).

Angle Shades (top) and one of two 
Dusky Thorns (bottom)

Although there is a good chance that you will have never seen either of these moths before, they are both fairly common in gardens in most of England, with Angle Shades being found nearly everywhere in Britain and Ireland.

The Angle Shades can be seen in every month of the year although it is more likely to be encountered between April and November. Dusky Thorn however is definitely a moth of late summer and autumn.

One reason why you are unlikely to have seen either of these species is that they are both extremely good at hiding during the daytime. Although they look very obvious sitting on my garden table, when I visualise them sitting in a bush or on a tree, particularly in the autumn, I can see how easy it would be to walk past without noticing them at all. This, of course, is a strategy that has evolved to protect these insects from being spotted by birds and other predators while they are resting during the day, prior to coming out to feed, mate, lay eggs etc., at night.

An Angle Shades moth on my finger

A Dusky Thorn moth - like the Angle Shades it is easy to imagine
a hungry bird passing this by thinking it was a dead leaf

Tuesday, 1 September 2020

Species Spotlight Challenge - Day 27 - Curlew

I sometimes think the word 'evocative' is a bit over-used. However, as it means 'bringing strong images, memories or feelings to mind’, I think it can legitimately be used to describe the cry of today's spotlight species, the Curlew (Numenius arquatus). The most familiar call of the Curlew is a long thin note which slides up at the end (sounding a bit like it is saying ‘Cooor-li’, and giving rise to the name). 

When I hear this I am brought back to several different scenes from my childhood - walking down Riversdale Road in Liverpool and hearing a curlew calling from the mud in the Mersey estuary at the bottom of the road - clambering on the old ruined pier at our regular holiday destination in the remote west of Ireland in the 1970s - being surprised to see one sitting on a fence post at the edge of a field while visiting my grandparents in an inland part of County Galway, Ireland (I had always thought of them as a coastal bird until that point).

The Curlew (or Eurasian Curlew, to distinguish it from its Far-Eastern, Long-billed and Bristle-thighed cousins, (none of which are found in Europe)) is a large wading-bird with a long, curved bill. Although the bill looks slightly cumbersome, it is what enables the curlew (and all its congeners in the genus Numenius) to feed on worms and other invertebrates deep in the mud of estuaries and coastal flats.

As I discovered as a child, although Curlews can be found in the highest numbers on the coast in the winter, they largely breed inland, often on moorland in places such as the Yorkshire Dales and the North York Moors. If you are used to seeing them at the seaside, the sight of a large bird doing a display flight over a heathery hillside can puzzle you at first, until you get a look at the long curved beak (open as it calls to mark its territory) and recognise your old friend from the seashore.

Sadly, the Curlews that used to breed near my grandparents' home are now a thing of the past. The species has suffered severe declines all over these islands in recent decades, but nowhere more so than in Ireland which may soon become the first country in Europe to lose Curlew as a breeding bird ( Although they are faring a bit better in the UK they have disappeared from the lowlands where they used to be a widespread breeder and are more or less restricted to the uplands in the summer now. 

A Eurasian Curlew on the River Tees, Middlesbrough. 1st September 2020


Monday, 31 August 2020

Species Spotlight Challenge - Day 26 - Common Blue

The Common Blue (Polyommatus icarus) is a small butterfly of flowery grassland which can be found all over the British Isles, as well as east as far as northern China, south to North Africa. It even has populations on the Canary Islands.

The males are bright blue above, with white fringes, the undersides being a sort of beigey-grey with a scattering of black dots and a band of larger orange spots along the edges of the wings. The females look similar when viewed from below but the orange spots are also visible on the upperside of the wings. The rest of the upperwing in females is usually mostly brown with just a frosting of dark blue nearer to the body (as can be seen on the photo of the female, below), but occasionally the blue can reach as far as the orange spots.

There are several species of blue butterflies in the UK and they can be tricky to tell apart. Apart from Common Blue and the smaller Holly Blue, however, most are scarce or rare and restricted to specific habitats in southern England, particularly chalk and limestone downland.

Sites that have a lot of Birds-foot Trefoil, a pretty yellow flower in the Pea family, are likely to hold populations of Common Blue. This is because it is one of the main food-plants for the caterpillars of this species, and if you walk through these grasslands on a sunny day in summer you will probably see males defending territories against their rivals. The females can be harder to see, but if you observe a patch of Bird's-foot Trefoil for a little while you may well see one coming to lay her eggs on the leaves. Other plants in the same family are also used including the pretty pink-flowered Common Restharrow and one of our other spotlight species, Black Medick (Day 9 - Black Medick).

A fresh male Common Blue - North Ormesby, Middlesbrough, 4th June 2019
A worn male Common Blue - North Ormesby Middlesbrough 31st August 2020

A female Common Blue - North Ormesby, Middlesbrough, 31st August 2020

Birds-foot Trefoil (Lotus corniculatus) -
North Ormesby, Middlesbrough, 4th June 2019

Sunday, 30 August 2020

Species Spotlight Challenge - Day 25 - Sea Rocket

Sea Rocket (Cakile maritima) is a small, succulent plant in the Cabbage Family, which is common around the coasts of the British Isles, mainland Europe, North Africa and parts of western Asia, Australia and New Zealand. It is also found as an introduced plant in parts of North and South America. In Britain it is almost entirely restricted to a very narrow zone on the coast, where it often grows on sand at the edges of dunes facing the sea. It is an 'annual', meaning that it completes its whole life cycle within one growing season, and so needs to grow from seed each year. Its seed pods are in two parts, each containing seeds, but functioning in different ways - the end of the pod furthest from the plant easily becomes detached and can float great distances in the sea, while the other part stays attached to the plant and so sheds its seeds near where the parent plant was growing. These two contrasting strategies ensure that Sea Rocket can continue to grow in suitable places while at the same time spreading its seeds to other sites with the conditions that the plant needs to survive. 

Many insects are attracted to pollinate the flowers and the caterpillars of at least four moth species feed on the leaves, including the appropriately named Sand Dart and also Ni Moth (which I suspect any Monty Python fans among my readers might find amusing). I didn't see any strange knights when I took this photo at South Gare this afternoon though.

As well as having some fascinating ecological adaptations, Sea Rocket is a really pretty little plant, with its whitish-pink, cross-shaped flowers and fleshy bright green leaves. 

Map showing the distribution of Sea Rocket around the coasts of Britain and Ireland,
based on records compiled by the Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland (BSBI)
[from the Online Atlas of the British and Irish Flora -]

Saturday, 29 August 2020

Species Spotlight Challenge - Day 24 - Common Knapweed

You may have seen today's spotlight species and mistaken it for a thistle, as the flowerheads looks a little similar. However, unlike most thistles, our focus for today - Common Knapweed (Centaurea nigra) - has no prickles anywhere on the plant. Another feature that distinguishes it from thistles is the lack of the obvious feathery 'pappus' attached to the seeds which thistles (along with dandelions and many other plants in the Daisy family) have. This is a common plant in tall grassland, roadside verges and woodland edges, and although it is sometimes considered a weed by farmers it is very important food source for many insects and some birds such as Goldfinches. Studies have shown that it is one of the most prolific producers of nectar of our perennial meadow plants in the UK. This feature is utilised by Honey-bees, at least 8 common species of butterfly (including Day 19's Spotlight Species Red Admiral, as well as Small Copper, Small Heath and Meadow Brown), and the Lime-speck Pug moth (so named because when resting it looks like a bird dropping).

The name knapweed apparently comes from a Middle English word 'knap' meaning 'a knob, bunch or tuft' and seems to refer to the hard little blackish heads which are particularly noticeable after the purple petals have dropped or shrivelled up. This has also given rise to two alternative names, Hardheads and Black Knapweed.

Friday, 28 August 2020

Species Spotlight Challenge - Day 23 - Grey Squirrel

Like the Red Fox, that I featured a few days ago (Day 18 - Red Fox), the species in the spotlight today is a mammal that has become a very familiar sight in our towns and cities here in the UK. Unlike the fox however, today's species - the Grey Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis)  - is not native to the British Isles (or indeed to anywhere in Europe). Grey Squirrels are native to eastern North America and we introduced to the UK in the 19th Century. Since its introduction it has displaced the native Red Squirrel from much of lowland Britain, although in upland areas, such as in the Lake District, parts of Northumberland and the Scottish Highlands, where there are substantial areas of pine forest, they don't do very well and Reds are able to out-compete them.

It used to be thought that Greys were just more aggressive and competitive than Reds and that that was why they had pushed them out. While this may be partly true, there is also a virus, called squirrelpox, which Grey Squirrels carry and which their red cousins quickly succumb to when infected.

Despite their invasive nature and their role in causing the decline of Red Squirrels, Greys are beloved of many people in the UK. They are very happy in parks and gardens and often provide a connection with a wild creature for people who get precious little contact with nature. I can still remember the first squirrel I ever saw, at a very young age (five or six maybe). My family were walking in Beverley Westwood, near Hull, during a visit to my grandma, and my dad pointed it out to me jumping from branch to branch. It was definitely the highlight of the trip for me.

The squirrel in the pictures below made an appearance on the decking outside my kitchen window this morning, actually when I was writing today's blog about a different species. It was the first one that we have seen in our garden since we moved here and I knew straight away that I had to change my plan for today's Spotlight, and write about Grey Squirrels instead.

Thursday, 27 August 2020

Species Spotlight Challenge - Day 22 - Rosebay Willowherb

Today's species spotlight is a strong contrast with yesterday's tiny plant with almost invisible flowers. This really is a large, showy, impressive plant and one that you may well already be aware of. It's Rosebay Willowherb (Chamerion angustifolium) - a tall (up to 2.5 metres (8 feet) in height) plant. It is frequently a coloniser of bare ground, including former industrial land and the sites where the vegetation has been burned away (hence the name Fireweed, which is used in North America). During the second world war in the UK it became known in some places as 'bombweed' because of its ability to colonise bomb craters.

Although there are at least 15 species (plus several hybrids) of willowherb in the UK (all in the Evening-primrose Family), this one actually looks a bit different from all the others (some of which are exceedingly difficult to tell apart) and is grouped in a different genus. One feature it does share with the other willowherbs, however, is its long thin fruits. These split along their length when they are ripe (a process known as dehiscence) to reveal the tiny seeds attached to cottony plumes, which are carried away in the wind, potentially to new sites which it can colonise.

Rosebay Willowherb has featured in several works of literature (often as fireweed) including my favourite book of all time, The Lord of The Rings, in which Tolkien describes the site of a bonfire in the Old Forest, and lists some of the wildflowers the hobbits saw there - "No tree grew there, only rough grass and many tall plants: stalky and faded hemlocks and wood-parsley, fireweed seeding into fluffy ashes, and rampant nettles and thistles"  (J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring - page 156 in my edition). 

One final fact for you - if you live in Greater London, this is your flower. In a 2002 poll by the charity Plantlife, Rosebay Willowherb was voted the 'county flower' of London (feel free to leave your thoughts about whether London is a county or not, in the comments 🙂).


Wednesday, 26 August 2020

Species Spotlight Challenge - Day 21 - Procumbent Pearlwort

Today's spotlight species is one whose name is probably longer than the plant itself - Procumbent Pearlwort (Sagina procumbens). This tiny little thing is actually extremely common in pavements, garden paths and other similar places in towns and cites. As well as urban environments it can be found in bare, often damp  and shady, places almost anywhere in the British Isles. 

When I first started getting interested in botany I skipped over this plant, dismissing it as a moss (and therefore probably too hard for me to identify). However, it is not a moss, and is in fact a flowering plant. The flowers are very insignificant and only have tiny (almost invisible) white petals, which are sometimes absent altogether. It is a perennial plant, meaning that that easily overlooked little weed in your front path may in fact be several years old.

It is native to most of the northern hemisphere and has also been found on the very remote Gough Island  in the South Atlantic (which is a  UNESCO World Heritage Site) where it is thought that the seeds were brought in on the soles of visitors' boots. Despite its size the presence of Procumbent Pearlwort on Gough Island is extremely worrying, as it has already led to apparently irrevocable changes to the ecosystems on other remote islands, and concerted efforts are underway to prevent this happening here.

For such a little plant, there is a surprising amount of folklore connected to it, at least in the UK and Ireland. Much of this has to do with it granting protection from malicious fairies (such as hanging it from your door lintel or drinking the milk from a cow that has eaten it). Also if a maiden drinks an infusion of Procumbent Pearlwort (or even uses it to wet her lips) it will attract her chosen swain to her.