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.


Tuesday, 25 August 2020

Species Spotlight Challenge - Day 20 - Red-legged Partridge

Sooooo, after looking at the weather I decided to cheat a little and do a species that I didn't actually see today. The species is Red-legged Partridge (Alectoris rufa) and I saw them two days ago, in the same location where I photographed the fox (Day 18 - Red Fox). 

Partridges are small, but stocky, gamebirds, a bit smaller than a pheasant, with round bodies and short tails, and we have two species in the UK. One, the Grey Partridge, is native to these islands but has undergone severe declines in recent decades and is on the 'red list' of Birds of Conservation Concern (Birds of Conservation Concern Leaflet). The Red-legged Partridge (sometimes known as the French Partridge) however is not native to Britain, and was introduced here from mainland Europe in the 1700s and is now a little less than twice as numerous as Grey Partridge. In some areas captive-bred birds are deliberately released for shooting.

You have almost certainly seen a picture of a Red-legged Partridge, on a Christmas card or perhaps wrapping paper, as it seems to be the species most commonly chosen to be the 'partridge in a pear tree' in the song 'The Twelve Days of Christmas'.  From behind they look mostly sandy brown but they have a pair of long, whitish eyebrows, a clear white throat, a black necklace which breaks up into a broad band of dots on the breast, and a series of dark lines (black, rufous and grey) on the flanks. Oh, and the legs are a bright pinky-red colour.

Red-legged Partridges are birds of open country and particularly arable fields. These ones however, were walking along a little-used private road (but which is also a public foot-path) surrounded by industry and scrubby 'waste-land', just east of Middlesbrough. They were a long way away from me, which is why the pictures are not very good, but I wanted to include them here as they are the first ones I have seen since I moved to this area and I am not sure if they have actually been seen before, in the place where I saw them.

Monday, 24 August 2020

Species Spotlight Challenge - Day 19 - Red Admiral

I'm a bit surprised that I have got as far as day 19 of this Species Spotlight Challenge before having my first butterfly. I'm not sure why that is, but whatever the reason, today's species is the beautiful and striking Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta). 

Unlike yesterday's species and the other examples given in the blog-post, the 'red' in the name of today's species really is what we would call red these days. However, there is a relatively small amount of it, especially compared to black, which is the main colour. The much rarer White Admiral butterfly is similar in this respect - it is mostly black but with a broken band of white across the wings.

When I was young my mother told me that the Red Admiral got its name because it was the shape of an admiral's hat. Well, although I can sort of see that (with a bit of imagination), it turns out (at least according to Wikipedia) that the name is actually a contraction of an older name, Red Admirable. I presume that this name just means that they are beautiful and to be admired.

The life cycle of Red Admirals in this country is very interesting. Each year, starting in Spring, there are successive waves of adult Red Admirals migrating north from North Africa and mainland Europe. Once they are here, the females start laying eggs, mostly on Stinging Nettles, which the spiky black caterpillars will feed on for three to four weeks before pupating. The first emergence of new adults in this country is usually in about July and they will keep on breeding for as long as they can,  and can often be seen flying into October or November. Numbers of Red Admirals in the UK may have increased in recent years and there is even some evidence that they may have started over-wintering in the south of England.

This lovely butterfly is a common sight in gardens but you are much more likely to see them if you have Buddleias (see my Species Spotlight - Day 8 Day 8 - Buddleia), and Ivy (which flowers late in the summer after the Buddleia has finished), although they will also feed on rotten fruit. Allowing some Stinging Nettles to remain unweeded will also increase your chance of seeing this species (as well as several other large butterflies that lay their eggs on Nettles).

The photos here show a Red Admiral feeding ('nectaring') on Buddleia in my garden this afternoon.

Photo © R. Palin

Sunday, 23 August 2020

Species Spotlight Challenge - Day 18 - Red Fox

The Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes) is one of our most familiar wild mammals in the UK, as well as one of the most controversial (at least when it comes to the rights and wrongs of hunting them). When I was growing up I always thought of foxes as something I might see on a visit to the countryside, if I was really lucky.  I remember being sooo excited when I saw my first one, with my Dad in the west of Ireland. However, even at that time they were starting to move into our cities. I think the first time most people became aware that urban foxes were a 'thing' was when the BBC natural history unit in Bristol showed footage of a fox family in the middle of that city. Since then, I (and I expect many of you) have got used to seeing foxes on suburban streets and in people's back gardens.

You may have wondered why it is called a Red Fox when it is clearly orange in colour. Well it's the same reason we have Red (not Orange) Squirrels (although sadly we don't have many of them anymore in England at least), and is related to the reason that we have flowers called Red Clover and Red Campion when both are purply-pink. And also why we talk about people with red hair. It is simply that the word 'red' used to refer to a much wider part of the colour spectrum than it does now. The word 'orange' used to be used for the fruit only, and the word 'pink' was the name of a flower (relatives of the carnation). Until these words started to catch on for the colours, 'red' was used for all of them.

When I was out for a walk this afternoon, in some industrial brownfield land between Middlesbrough and Redcar, I came across the little fellow below. He seemed a bit smaller than adult foxes I have seen before, so I think he (or she) is probably about half to three-quarters grown. This year's young should be independent of their parents by now but they won't be fully grown until early autumn.

Although, foxes are expert hunters in the Order Carnivora, they are actually opportunistic omnivores and so will eat what they can get, including beetles, fruit and the contents of bins, as well as animals such as rabbits and voles.

Saturday, 22 August 2020

Species Spotlight Challenge - Day 17 - Ringed Plover

For today's species spotlight I have chosen one of our commonest and most easily seen waders - if you live near the coast, that is. It's the Ringed Plover (or Common Ringed Plover) (Charadrius hiaticula). If you go to Redcar Beach on a winter's day and stand in one place, near the water's edge for a little while, you will very likely see several Ringed Plovers flying along the shore, or even landing quite close to you. 

They are in the family Charadriidae (usually called the Plover family) which includes all the plovers, lapwings and dotterels. The English name for this member of the family comes from the dark neck-ring which the adults have. This is black during the breeding season and browny grey during the winter. Ringed Plovers are usually found right on the coast, unlike their less common cousin, the Little Ringed Plover, which likes to nest on island in inland lakes and pools, and which, unlike the Ringed Plover, migrates to Africa in the winter. 

Ringed Plovers don't built a nest but instead make a hollow in sand or shingle where they rely on cryptic colouration (i.e. camouflage) of themselves, their eggs and their chicks, to stop predators finding them. As with many members of the plover family, if a potential predator does get too near to the nest, the adults will do a distraction display, pretending to be injured so that the predator follows them and doesn't see the eggs or chicks, until they have got far enough away from the nest, at which point they fly off and wait until the potential threat is gone before returning to the nest.

The photo below was taken today at the end of the breakwater at South Gare, a couple of hours before high tide. It shows an adult (probably a male I think, judging by the amount of jet black colour on the face) in summer plumage.


Friday, 21 August 2020

Species Spotlight Challenge - Day 16 - Shepherd's Purse

Today's spotlight species is a small plant in the cabbage family. Unlike cabbages, which are robust plants with quite large yellow flowers, this species - Shepherd's Purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris) - is quite a spindly thing with small white flowers. Like one of our previous spotlight species, Annual Meadow-grass (Day 5 - Annual Meadow-grass), this is an extremely common and widespread plant and if you live in the UK, even in an urban area, it is very likely that you could find it now if you stepped outside your front door and went for a short walk, looking at the plants growing out of pavement cracks or on the edges of grass verges.

The name refers to the heart-shaped seedpods. According to the 17th Century botanist William Coles "It is called Shepherd's purse or scrip from the likeness that the seed hath with that kind of leathearne bag, wherein Shepherds carry their victualls  into the field." I have been unable to find a picture of what the actual leather shepherd's bag would have looked like so I can't comment on whether it is a close resemblence. However, the seedpods are very distinctive and have often been the thing that has brought me back down to earth when I have been trying to turn this otherwise quite variable plant into something rarer and more interesting.

Although it is a fairly little regarded weed in the UK (by most people anyway), in several Asian countries it is a commercial food crop, and is used in dishes such as won-ton soup in China and in the Korean dish 'namul'.


Thursday, 20 August 2020

Species Spotlight Challenge - Day 15 - Common (or Edible) Periwinkle

[EDIT - IMPORTANT NOTE - this blog is not a recommendation to eat periwinkles off your local seashore. It may not be safe (due to sewage or industrial effluent) and also the identification of the species may not be  straightforward (as I found).]

I went with my family to the beach at South Gare today, taking advantage of the sunny weather. After a bit of reading and a bit of paddling I went for a walk along to the rocky breakwater to see what I could see in the way of wildlife. As well as terns, gulls and wading birds (and wading humans), I found some marine creatures and  brown, green and red  marine algae (aka seaweed) on the rocks which were exposed by the low tide. 

The one I am going to focus on today is the Common Periwinkle (Littorina littorea). This is the largest and commonest of the British periwinkle species and can be found on rocky coasts (except the most exposed areas) from below the low tide mark to the upper shore. Periwinkles are marine snails (gastropod molluscs) which use their file-like tongue, called a 'radula' to feed on a broad range of the more delicate seaweeds.

You might think of migration as something that birds or herds of wildebeest or caribou do, over huge distances, but in more northerly locations (including the north of England, where I live) the Common Periwinkle does it too, but on a much smaller scale. They migrate down shore in the autumn as the temperature gets colder, as they wouldn't be able to tolerate the sub-zero temperatures which they might be exposed to above the water. In the spring they head back up shore. They can tolerate being exposed to the air (so long as it is warm enough) but they are usually inactive above water unless the environment is very moist. This is apparently because it is easier (less energy-expensive) to move on mucus (as all gastropods do) underwater.

The alternative name, Edible Periwinkle, is because this is the species which was most commonly eaten by humans and apparently can still be found for sale in coastal areas of Scotland and Ireland, in paper bags with a pin attached. The pin is to stick into the operculum (the little plate that closes the aperture of the shell), so that you can twist it to remove the animal inside in order to eat it. No periwinkles were hurt in the writing of this blog today though.

Thanks are due to my friend, the marine biologist Dr Bob Sluka who confirmed my identification [EDIT - and to Hannah Hereward who corrected both our IDs for at least some of the snails shown in the pictures below😳]. 

Common Periwinkles (Littorina littorea) [EDIT - The one on the right is a Common Periwinkle. The other three are now thought to be Thick Top-shells (Phorcus lineatus)]

Common Periwinkles, with an unidentified limpet (Patella sp) and some small
barnacles on the bottom left hand rock. [EDIT - I think the three in the top right, plus one of the others, are Common Periwinkle. The others are likely to be Thick Top-shells, or possibly another species.]

Common Periwinkles above and below water, with some more limpets (possibly a different
species from the other one). [EDIT - I am no longer sure of which species the snails in this
picture belong to, but have decided to leave the photo in because a) I like the fact that it shows
them above and below water, and b) it is a good lesson in making
sure of your identification before publishing 😊]

Wednesday, 19 August 2020

Species Spotlight Challenge - Day 14 - Dragonflies

I've chosen two species of dragonflies for today's spotlight - the Common Darter (Sympetrum striolatum) and Emperor Dragonfly (Anax imperator) - both of which I saw and photographed on the 'Dragonfly Ponds' at RSPB Saltholme today. These are both males. Female Emperors (Empresses, surely) are greenish where the male is blue. Female Common Darters are yellow where the male is reddy-orange, except in older females, which become more greeny coloured.

Common Darter is of the commonest and most widespread of the 36 dragonfly species found in the UK. Emperors used to be restricted to southern and central England and Wales (as shown in the book that I bought in 1997), but are now found as far north as central Scotland. Both can be found in a wide range of different types of waterbodies including ponds, lakes and wet ditches.

Dragonflies, (as well as their cousins the damselflies) have complicated life-cycles and in fact spend most of their lives underwater as flightless larvae known as 'nymphs'. This stage can last as long as five years (although in both these species it is much less) and can involve up to 12 skin moults as the larva grows bigger. Older dragonfly nymphs are among the most fierce and voracious invertebrate predators in the underwater world of ponds and ditches and can take on small fish and tadpoles. The last act of the nymph is to climb up the stem of a convenient plant and undergo its final moult  - bursting out of its old skin and emerging as an adult dragonfly. The adults usually only live for a few weeks, during which time they mate and lay eggs (underwater), starting the whole cycle off again.

The two species I've chosen today are one of our largest dragonflies and one of the smallest - Emperors can be nearly 8cm long and Common Darters less than half that. Although the larger species can look alarming (possibly explaining one of the old names - Devil's Darning Needles) they have no sting and are unable to break the skin of a human with their bite (which they would only attempt to do if you held one in your hand).

Tuesday, 18 August 2020

Species Spotlight Challenge - Day 13 - Amphibious Bistort

Amphibious bistort (Persicaria amphibia) is a plant (not a frog or a newt) that has an aquatic form and a terrestrial form (which is where the first part of the name comes from). It is a member of the Polygonaceae family which includes docks, sorrel, the pernicious weed Japanese Knotweed and the crop-plant Buckwheat, but unlike many members of the family it has quite pretty flowers. It is widespread, although not particularly common, in most of Great Britain and Ireland. The aquatic form can be found near the edges of ponds and lakes, or in muddy ground next to water.

I have included below pictures from two very different sorts of waterbodies. The first two (taken a few weeks ago) are from one of the large pools at the RSPB's Saltholme reserve, while the plants in the last two photos (taken today) were growing amongst litter and a discarded shopping trolley in a little pond at a small urban nature reserve in Middlesbrough.

The name bistort apparently comes from the Latin 'bis' meaning 'twice' and 'torta' meaning 'twisted' and is a reference to the twistiness of the plant's roots. 


Monday, 17 August 2020

Species Spotlight Challenge - Day 12 - Buff-tailed Bumblebee (probably)

In the UK we have around 270 species of bee. Of these 24 are classed as bumblebees - with their bodies  densely covered with long hairs of various colours. Many of these are rare or restricted in their distribution and there are only about 7 that you are likely to see around Middlesbrough, with similar numbers (although possibly different species) in most other areas.

Bumblebees are among the most popular and likeable of our native insects - less aggressive than Honeybees, and unlikely to sting if left in peace. They live in smaller colonies than Honeybees (40-400 in a colony usually, compared to around 50,000 for Honeybees). The colony is established in the spring by a queen which has spent the winter hibernating in a hole in the ground (often in a north facing bank so she doesn't get warmed up by the winter sun). She lays eggs from which workers (all female) arise to take care of and defend the nest and to gather food for it. Males and young queens are hatched later, and they generally leave the nest and mate. Once the males and young queens have left the nest the workers disperse, and eventually die at the end of the season, as do the males.

Our spotlight species today is the Buff-tailed Bumblebee (Bombus terrestris) - one of our commonest bumblebees. Despite the name, only the queens actually have a buff coloured 'tail' (really the end of the abdomen). The males and the workers both have white, or whitish, tails, which is the reason why, in the title of this blog I have added the word 'probably' - there are a few other species (including the very common White-tailed Bumblebee which have white tails and often only reliably separated using DNA. However, the presence of a very thin brownish band between the black and the white of the tail, and the fact that the white is really off-white and not bright white, make me think that this is either a male or a worker Buff-tailed.

Although most bumblebees do follow the pattern of colony formation described above, Buff-taileds in cities, particularly in the south of the UK, have started becoming 'winter active' in recent years, meaning that the workers are surviving the winter and remaining active, even when there is snow on the ground. They are helped in this by the presence of many winter-flowering ornamental plants such as Oregon-grape, and Honeysuckle. 


Sunday, 16 August 2020

Species Spotlight Challenge - Day 11 - Moorhen

I went for a walk this afternoon in my favourite little 'nature space' on the edge of North Ormesby, and got this nice picture of a baby bird belonging to today's spotlight species - Common Moorhen (Gallinula chloropus- in Ormesby Beck, as well as one of its parents disappearing into the undergrowth downstream (showing its distinctive white tail flashes).

You have probably seen Moorhens on your local park lake or canal but you might have thought they were a kind of duck. However, they are not ducks, or even very closely related to them. If you look at the photo of the young one you will see that it doesn't have webbed feet, as a duck would, and (although you can't see this in either of my photos) the structure of the bird is very different from that of ducks. 

The Moorhen has a very widespread (although somewhat patchy) distribution in Europe, Asia and Africa. A very closely related bird in North America, the Common Gallinule, used to be considered part of the same species until 2011 when ornithologists decided that it was different enough to be called a species in its own right.

The scientific name translates as "Little chicken with green feet", which is fairly accurate for the adults (but not for the chicks which have black legs and feet, as the first photo shows). The English name might make you think they would be found on moorland, but it comes from an old use of the word 'moor' referring to marshes and 'meres'. My father, who grew up in Ireland in the 1930s and 40s, knew it by the name of Waterhen, which is one of the old names that were used for it in England also.

I have often been asked - how do you tell the difference between a coot and a moorhen. Coots have white bills and a big white unfeathered patch on the front of the head - hence the phrase "bald as a coot", while Moorhens (adults at least) have red where the Coot has white, except for a yellow tip to the bill. Moorhens also have two white flashes under the tail which bob up and down as it swims away from you.

Saturday, 15 August 2020

Species Spotlight Challenge - Day 10 - Grey Seal

Today’s species (and our first mammal) - the Grey Seal (Halichoerus grypus) is one of two species of seal which can regularly be seen around the coasts of the UK and Ireland, the other being the Harbour (or Common) Seal. A third species, the Harp Seal, which normally lives in the Arctic, has been recorded in British waters occasionally as a vagrant.

The Grey Seal is found on both sides of the North Atlantic and is a fairly large seal, with males (known as bulls) in the UK populations reaching up to 2.3m (7ft 7in) in length and weighing up to 310kg. The females (you guessed it - cows) are much smaller, reaching no more than 1.95m (6ft 5in) and 190kg. Seals are, of course, marine creatures, but unlike those other marine mammals, the whales and dolphins, they haul ashore every day to rest over the low tide and at sunset. Haul-out sites are often on rocky shores, but can also be estuaries, tidal mud flats and sandy shores. These ones were photographed today at Greatham Creek, which runs into the Tees Estuary at the suitably named Seal Sands.

The main food of Grey Seals is fish (they are often accused of 'stealing' fish from fishermen's nets) but they will also eat cephalopods (squid and octopus) and sometimes even birds.

Grey Seal cows give birth on land (to pups, surprisingly, not calves) between September and December (with the peak in October), usually on uninhabited islands, caves and remote beaches. The pups grow very quickly, and it is only 30-35 days before they take to the sea and can feed themselves independently.

Grey Seals hauled up on the side of Greatham Creek, between Middlesbrough and Hartlepool EDIT - the seals higher up the mud and on the saltmarsh in this picture are thought by an expert to be Harbour Seals. The rest are Grey Seals as I thought

Grey Seals differ from Harbour Seals in their 'Roman Nose' (Harbours have more snub noses)

A Grey Seal swimming up Greatham Creek from the sea

While I was at the Greatham Creek seal-watchpoint this morning I was lucky enough to see two seals fighting, for several minutes. It wasn't as violent and bloody as some of the seal-fights you might have seen on TV nature programmes but it was impressive nonetheless, and I was able to take a series of pictures which should give you some impression of what it was like to witness it.

The seals of Greatham Creek (pronounced Gree-tham Creek), nearby Seal Sands, and the whole Tees Estuary system, have had some ups and downs over the years (although really 'downs and ups' would be a more appropriate expression). Rather than tell you myself I think it is best to  show you the very informative sign-boards going from the car-park to the seal watchpoint, along the side of the Seaton Carew Road.