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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