Meadow yellow

Meadow yellow
Bulbous Buttercup (Ranunculus bulbosus) in a Devon meadow

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Four & twenty blackbirds eating my Bramley pie

There’s no need to tell you how cold it’s been recently. But please bear with me as I beg your sympathy. Last night we recorded minus 14.5 degrees at the Pinfold. We have ice so thick on our windows that we cannot see out, have reached a limit on the number of clothes we can wear indoors and still move, and the family are complaining of chilblains. But compare this with our wildlife without resource to heaters and extra layers, with food covered in snow and water frozen. Within an hour of putting out warm steaming water this morning for the birds, enjoyed quickly by three eager robins, it was frozen. I guess many birds have departed west where it has been a little warmer, but those that remain have to be ever more resourceful.

The Bramley apple tree in our garden has had a bumper crop this year and we have struggled to keep up with the windfalls, despite consuming quantities of stewed apple, apple snow, apple crumble and apple pie. This has left a lot of half bruised, half rotten apples scattered under the tree - until the cold snap, these appeared of little interest to the birds. However in the last few days redwing and blue tits, but mainly blackbirds, have been gorging on them with increasing squabbling over the best ones. This gave me the opportunity to look more closely at the Blackbird (Turdus merula), and I was struck by one male that had a particular orange/red beak with a matching eye ring. Other blackbirds had either bright yellow or brown colouration. I have to be honest and say that I had never noticed this colour variation before and so wanted to investigate why.

The colour of the blackbird’s beak and eye ring is controlled by plasma carotenoid levels. There are many studies, with widely different species, that have considered how females use such colouration to evaluate the quality of a potential mate. It would seem that more colourful males are considered more attractive - But why? Researchers, Bright, et al. (2004) proposed that larger male blackbirds may have larger territories or be better at defending territories during male-male interactions, ensuring access to carotenoid food sources. So, a more colourful beak would equal a more successful male. More recent research however by Biard, et al. (2010), found that there was a relationship between bill colour and relative intensity of different parasitic infections, such as lice. They suggested that these could then act as colour signals for females to assess the relative condition and health of males to help make mating choices.
Now it just so happens that apples have a particularly high concentration of carotenoids. I wonder therefore if it is likely that the males most successful at eating our Bramley’s will be more likely to catch the eye of females in spring.

.....and so to re-coin a phrase, ‘the early blackbird that snatches the apple, catches the mate’.

Biard, C., Saulnier, N., Gaillard, M. and Moreau, J. (2010) Carotenoid-based bill colour is an integrative signal of multiple parasite infection in blackbird. Naturwissenschaften, 97:987–995

Bright, A., Wass, J.R., King, C.M., and Cuming, P.D (2004) Bill colour and correlates of male quality in blackbirds: an analysis using canonical ordination. Behaviour Processes, 27; 65(2):123-32.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Are Yew poisonous

Our bathroom has some intimacy with a large Yew tree (Taxus baccata), the fulsome evergreen branches hanging a metre off the window unnoticed for much of the year. But in the autumn the multitude of mini matt red barrel-shaped berries colours up this dark patch of garden. This week whilst attending to some toiletry I noticed two squirrels feasting on the yew’s fruit. Having always heeded the warning that almost every part of the yew tree is poisonous, I was curious at how these animals coped with the toxins, or wondered if the tree was as dangerous as we are led to believe. Indeed it opened up a bigger question; how do animals know what is and isn’t poisonous?

Numerous scientific studies have determined that most tissue of the yew tree, including the seeds and foliage are rich in taxin(e), a complex mixture of toxic alkaloids (Thomas & Polwart, 2003), and hence it’s genus name of Taxus. The toxins appear to impact primarily on the cardiac tissue of humans and other mammals, leading to heart failure and potentially death. Other effects reported in humans include dizziness, vomiting, abdominal pain and convulsions (Wilson, et al., 2001). This toxicity remains prevalent all year round and even when dried, but peak concentrations are found during the winter (Wilson, et al., 2001). Most incidents of poisoning appear accidental occurrences, with contaminated feed to livestock, but there are a few human reported cases.

The poisonous nature of the Yew has been known for ages. Primitive cultures made use of yew juice dipped arrows as an animal poison for hunting and the Celts committed ritual suicides by drinking extracts from yew foliage (Wilson, et al., 2001).

However, interestingly there is one part of the tree that does not contain taxin which may well explain the recent diet of our squirrels; the aril, or soft succulent scarlet tissue surrounding the seeds and forming the berry. So our ever-clever squirrels can enjoy the fruitful bounty of yew without toxic effect, but I wonder what they do with the seeds – do they spit them out or pass them out undigested in a parcel of ready-made fertiliser. This seems like a clever strategy of the yew to direct wildlife to only consume those parts of it that aids its seed dispersal. However for us humans, BEWARE -only the wiliest of wild foragers should attempt to eat the yew berries, ensuring none of the deadly seeds are consumed.

Thomas, P. A. and Polwart, A. (2003) Taxus baccata. Journal of Ecology, 91( 3): 489-524.
Wilson, C. R., Sauer, J. and Hooser, S.B. (2001) Taxines: A review of the mechanism and toxicity of yew (Taxus spp.) alkaloids. Toxicon, 39 (2-3): 175-185.

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

The Upside-down bird

We recently started feeding our woodland birds again after a summer break, and within hours of filling peanut & fat ball hangers they were back as if there had been no break in supply. The feeders are being dominated by the tits, including; Great, Blue, Long-tailed, Coal & Marsh. Many of these are likely to be new to the ‘Pinfold café’ after last year’s harsh winter.

The tits have been joined this autumn by at least two regular Nuthatches (Sitta europaea). I’ve seen these birds many times scurrying up and down tree trunks, but I’ve become intrigued recently by their apparent preference for feeding upside down, particularly on the hangers. This reverse mode is relatively unique to Nuthatches. Their natural foraging technique involves working their way down tree branches looking for invertebrates, before flying to the top of another tree and repeating the exercise. The only explanation that I can find for such novel feeding is that by adopting a different approach they see invertebrate prey that other birds, such as woodpeckers and treecreepers, overlook from more conventional angles. Nuthatches appear to be aided by having an extra-large and stronger hind toe (hallux) for gripping the trunk at tight angles, and a stubby tail to reduce a potential incumbency. Perhaps they get so used to this productive technique that they continue to feed upside down on hangers through habit rather than efficiency. Their characteristic posture on the hanger is body facing downwards but frequently looking upwards checking for threats (see photo), making for a rather rubber-necked pose.

It is therefore no surprise that due to the modus operandi of the Nuthatch, that they are frequently known as the ‘Upside down bird’. Other species of Nuthatches from around the world feed in a similar way, which have prompted other nicknames, including Topsy-turvy bird, and Devil down-head.

Monday, 27 September 2010

Spring lunacy

At the beginning of September I attended a course in Pembrokeshire on rocky shore invertebrates. The course was carefully timed to coincide with the largest ‘springtide of the year so that we could explore the furthest point of the lower shore. The term ‘spring tide’ has actually no connection with the season but is derived from the Saxon ‘springan’, “to bulge” or “to rise”. The dictionary definition is “the rising of the sea (to an exceptional height) at particular times” (Onions, 1952). These “exceptional” tides are caused by the combined gravitational effect of the sun & moon every two weeks at a new and full moon. The largest ‘spring’ tide occurs near the equinox during September when the sun and moon are most closely aligned and so referred to as an “equinoctial spring tide” (Oakley 2010). A similar tide occurs around the March equinox.

(Photo of Painted Topshell above - Image credit: Asbjørn Hansen via

This is therefore a very special time for the seashore naturalist, when animals and plants are so rarely exposed for observation. On my visits to rocky shores near Dale Fort, large kelp forests were exposed dotted with Blue-rayed Limpets (Patella pellucidum); small flattened versions of the Common Limpet (Patella vulgata) found high up the shore and characterised by brilliant iridescent kingfisher blue lines across their dorsal surface. Painted Topshells (Caliostoma zizphinum), the most colourful of this group of sea snails looking like vibrant spinning tops were found amongst amid rocks encrusted with brightly coloured star ascidian colonies, looking as alien as their name suggests . Crabs were also revealed, more typical of sub-littoral habitats (below shore level), such as the pie-crust edged Edible Crab (Cancer pagurus) and dirty looking Broad-clawed porcelain crabs (Porcellana platycheles). Most exciting was a Decorator crab (Macropodia sp) covered in little seaweed tufts in an attempt to camouflage itself, and a small skeleton like sea-spider scuttling along the tide line at its lowest point.

(Photo of Edible crab above - Image credit: Christophe Quintin via

It was a fantastic opportunity to capture a rare glimpse of such wildlife, but all too soon the tide turned and they became submerged again beneath the advancing waves, some not to be exposed again for perhaps many months.

Why not book your place soon for the next equinoctial spring tide at a rocky shore near you!

Oakley, J. (2010) Seashore Safaris. Cardiff: Graffeg Books
Onions, C.T (Ed) (1952) The shorter Oxford English dictionary on historical principles. 3rd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Monday, 23 August 2010

Doing the Dodder dance

Whilst on holiday in Devon I met up with a wildlife friend to visit a nature reserve, Chudleigh Knighton Heath, near Bovey Tracey. This SSSI site of predominantly acid heathland is managed by Devon Wildlife Trust (DWT). However it took a good hour to get onto the site proper due to the initial distraction of the local herb-rich roadside verges. Damp ditches were particularly productive including Lesser Spearwort (Ranunculus flammula), Water Mint (Mentha aquatic) and Sneezewort (Archillea ptarmica). Sneezewort is a close relative of the more ubiquitous Yarrow (Archillea millefolium), being named due to its past use as a sneezing powder (PFAF, 2010) which provides its Latin name ptarmica, derived from the Greek ptario meaning ‘sneeze’.

On the reserve itself we quickly found three members of the heath family; Bell Heather (Erica cinera), Cross-leaved Heath (Erica tetralix) and Heather itself, also known as Ling (Calluna vulgaris). We also found several specimens of Lousewort (Pedicularis sylvatica), a curious plant with over-proportioned flowers and ecologically, a grass parasite akin to the closely related Yellow Rattle (Rhinanthus minor). But then suddenly my friend Greg dropped onto his knees and started to feverishly investigate a patch of Heather. Breathing excitedly and through snatched breaths he managed to stammer “Dodder”. He then stood up and provided a pre-emptive apology, before performing a rendition of a ‘Rumpelstiltskin’ hopping dance upon the heath, a means to release the sheer and utter joy of seeing such an exquisite and (our) first sighting of this species. Dodder (Cuscuta epithymum) is indeed a wonderfully interesting species, parasitising typically heather and gorse. Lacking chlorophyll and with vestigial leaves, they cover their hosts in a mass of intertwining threadlike red stems and pink clusters of flowers. It is however now uncommon in the UK, having declined significantly during the past few decades due to habitat loss. There is evidence that it does benefit from habitat management such as grazing or burning as this provides more young Heather plants, its preference (Meulebrouck, et al., 2007). DWT do now have an active management programme including scrub clearance, light grazing and rotational burning, which may well be benefiting Dodder.

A few days later I was walking part of the Cornish coastal path near Boscastle and there to my delight was another mass of Dodder, but this time on a patch of Gorse (Ulex europaeus). I managed to resist the temptation of doing the ‘Dodder Dance’ being in a more precarious position, but silently toasted Greg and smiled at recalling his exuberance.

For better images of Dodder, see

Meulebrouck, K., Ameloot, E. , Verheyen, K. and Hermy, M. (2007) Local and regional factors affecting the distribution of the endangered holoparasite Cuscuta epithymum in heathlands. Biological conservation, 140 (1):8 -18.

Plants for a Future (PFAF) (  

Friday, 23 July 2010

Unbelievable umbellifers

An umbel is an inflorescence made up of many individual flowers on stalks (pedicels) that originate from roughly the same point on the flowering stem (peduncle) giving the appearance of an umbrella. The umbellifers all share this characteristic, usually with white or yellow flowers with rounded or flattened tops, with the appearance from above of complex lacework. The British Iles is home to over 50 species, ranging widely in size and usefulness. They are more commonly referred to as the ‘carrot’ family (Apiaceae), and include a number of edible garden plants in addition to the carrot, including fennel, coriander, parsley and celery. However more unusually, the Pignut (Conopodium majus), was once commonly dug up for its edible tubers. Indeed evidence that they were collected as a wild food and possibly used in a ritual context, would appear to date back to the Bronze Age, in addition to the now nationally rare Great Pignut (Bunium bulbocastanum) (Moffett, 1991). But many of the umbellifers are far less agreeable and some considerably poisonous.....

......Many people are familiar with Giant Hogweed (Heracleum mantegazzianum) and its poisonous sap, which when combined with sunlight causes severe blistering to skin. The red/purple spotting on the stem is a useful warning shared by other poisonous umbellifers, such as Hemlock (Conium maculatum) and Rough Chervil (Chaerophyllum temulum). To illustrate their potency, one report of dairy cattle inadvertently consuming Rough Chervil caused severe internal haemorrhaging amongst many other symptoms, leading to their slaughter (Fejes, et al., 1985).

But it is the ubiquitous Cow Parsley (Anthriscus sylvestris) that is probably the most familiar umbellifer out of the garden, adorning our country lanes and roadsides with their tall frothy inflorescences from April to June. Now in July they are brown and ageing, their flowerless umbels resembling old broken umbrellas.

I’ve seen most of these umbellifers this year, but there is one that I am unlikely to come across – a protected species, Shepherd’s- needle (Scandix pectin-veneris), listed as critically endangered by the World Conservation Union and has its own Biodiversity Action Plan. This seems somewhat ironic as it originated as a grain contaminant from the Mediterranean establishing itself for generations as a common weed of cornfields.

So when you next spot an umbel look a bit closer, but check first for purple spots, or maybe dig for wild pignuts like our ancestors.

Fejes, J. et al. (1985) Chaerophyllum temulum [temulentum] poisoning in dairy cows. Veterinářství, 35 (2):68 -69
Moffett, L. (1991) Pignut tubers from a Bronze Age cremation at barrow hills Oxfordshire England UK and the importance of vegetable tubers in the prehistoric period. Journal of Archaeological Science, 18 (2):187 -192

Saturday, 3 July 2010

There and Back again

There and Back again (better known as ‘The Hobbit’ by Tolkien)

(Image copyright of Andrew Easton)

A couple of weeks ago I was watching BBC Springwatch on iPlayer with my youngest, with the presenters introducing a new bird for the series, when a movement caught my eye out in the garden through the window. A dusky, non-descript bird flying repeatedly back and forth to the same perch on a warm summers evening - it could only be the Spotted Flycatcher (Muscicapa striata), the same bird Peckham & Dumble were so proudly talking about. Coincidental! This hunting behaviour is unique in birds, having been described as the only such species that is a ‘sit-and-wait’ predator of aerial insects (1). It can also be identified by a characteristic upright stance and the streaked markings on the forehead – it is the young that are more truly spotted.

Last year we had a pair of Spotted Flycatchers try and nest in the Wisteria on the South-facing wall of the house, but without success. So it was reassuring to see them back this year, a late migrant from Southern Africa. They are a bird in some crisis, with growing conservation concern following a period of prolonged and accelerating decline of over 50% in the UK over the past 25 years (2), putting them high on the at danger ‘Red List’. The factors affecting the population decline is still unclear, but it does appear to be broad-scale, affecting populations in all habitats and regions equally (2).

As a child I used to look forward every summer to visiting my grandparents in the Cotswolds and seeking out these birds near a small sewage treatment site, where they used nearby barbed wire fencing as a perch to hunt from. Now here in 2010, as I watch and show my daughter these precious birds flying back and forth from favourite perches, I wonder if she will have the same opportunity with her children - For that, these and others will have to fly there and back again many times, both to catch millions of insects and travel repeatedly across continents.

(1) Davies, N.B. 1977. Prey selection and the search strategy of the Spotted Flycatcher. Animal Behaviour. 25: 1016–1033.
(2) Freeman, S.N. & Crick, H.Q.P (2003) The decline of the Spotted Flycatcher Muscicapa striata in the UK: an integrated population model. Ibis, 145:400–412

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Hoary Quaking Tongue and Ragged Adder Rattles Black Medick

These are colourful words of an English summer meadow, surprising and mysterious. Last Saturday on a hot and sultry afternoon I joined a local guided walk of Potwell Dyke Grasslands tucked behind the Minster in Southwell, on a discovery of 'magical' plants with their vibrant names.

As we approached the site up a narrow lane, the first surprise to be revealed was the Greater Celandine (Chelidonium majus); not a celandine at all, but a poppy with its small yellow flowers superficially resembling the latter more closely. On the site, Yellow Rattle (Rhinanthus minor) was in abundance, so named due to its loose seeds that rattle in the dry fruiting capsules. It is actually a parasite on other plants such as grasses and has been considered a harmful meadow weed by reducing agricultural productivity (Westbury, 2004). However this suppressive impact on grasses has been turned into a virtue for conservation as it also improves biodiversity of hay meadows.

As we moved into the main meadow we were presented by a purple swathe of Southern Marsh –orchid (Dactylorhiza fuchsia) with a backdrop of yellow buttercups, and red Ragged Robins’ (Lynchnis flos-cuculi) (see image). The latest exciting species find in this meadow is Adder’s Tongue, a fern from the Ophioglossum genus, named from the Greek ‘snake-tongue’ due to its narrow spore-bearing spike. Ironically rabbit disturbance of the soil seems to have helped it take hold, perhaps mimicking dune-slacks, one of its favourite habitats.

The adjoining meadow displayed more delights with Bulbous Buttercup (Ranunculus bulbosus), Black Medick (Medicago lupulina), blue Bugles (Ajuga reptans), Hoary Plantain (Plantago media), quaking grasses and the diminutive Pignuts (Conopodium majus). All quite a show and apparently it gets better later in the season. No doubt I will be back to see the orchids mature and to experience more colour and plant mystery.

Westbury, D. B. (2004) Biological Flora of the British Isles, No. 236. Rhinanthus minor L. Journal of Ecology, 92 (5):906-927.

Thursday, 27 May 2010

Close shave for Twayblades

Today I went to look for a local green orchid, the Common Twayblade (Listera ovata). It is probably named “from Old Norse, since the modern Swedish name is Två Blad - two leaves” - Typically plants have two dark green oval leaves (1).

This particular plant has been saved from the ‘cut’ by a local botanist, having been topped a few weeks ago by a council mower. It has been protected from further damage with sticks and tape. Our Council seems to have a growing obsession with scything our local roadside verges and hedgebanks. Maybe people prefer green grass monotony or barren banks scraped to the earth. Clearly there needs to be some maintenance, but why so zealous? What is sacrificed for this ‘clean’ countryside approach is a razzmatazz of wild flowers. The plants that have adapted to this manmade habitat are many of our woodland flowers utilising the shade of hedgerows or overhanging trees, and other meadows plants
using the more open aspects. These plants also provide food and cover for many of our invertebrates. Locals have also spent the last seven years protecting a ‘colony’ of Six-spot Burnet (Zygaena filipendulae) moths on the verge opposite to the Twayblades, feeding on the richness of Knapweed, Trefoil and Vetches.

However we are in danger of losing much of this bonus biodiversity. It takes up to 15 years for a Twayblade plant to reach maturity from seed(1), making it hard to rectify damaging actions. Ironically there is evidence that the Common Twayblade rather enjoys manmade habitats(2), but I doubt this is true where the ‘countryside hairdressers’ are allowed to run riot with their blades.

(1) Britain’s Orchids (
(2) Nowicka-Falkowska, K. (2002) Ecology of selected populations of Listera ovata (L.) Br. from Siedlce environs. Acta Scientiarum Polonorum - Biologia, 1(1): 23-32

Friday, 21 May 2010

Hawthorn styles

It’s the time of the May-flower or Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna). The hedges and country lanes about my home are now full of their white blossom true to their name. This is a plant full of mystery, such as a link to the early Christians who associated it with Joseph of Arimathea (owner of the tomb given up to Jesus after the crucifixion) (1); It is said that he visited Glastonbury where he planted a staff that sprouted to produce a ‘Holy Thorn’ that blooms around Christmas time, and from which cuttings have grown and still occur in the area (2).

But until this spring I was unaware of another, more botanical mystery. Mary, a local botanist popped in to see me this week with a cutting from what she called ‘Two-styles Hawthorn’. This is actually an alternative name for the Midland Hawthorn (Crataegus laevigata), although I prefer its more apt original name. This is a less common species of hawthorn and is characterised by having two or three styles compared with the Common Hawthorn’s single style (hence the second part of its Latin name, monogyna). During the autumn they can still be distinguished by crushing the ‘haws’ and counting the seeds; if there is more than one seed it will be a Midland Hawthorn, reflecting the flowers style number. Its leaves are also different with the lobes far more rounded and less deeply cut to the mid-rib. It is true that it occurs commonly across much of the Midlands, but it is also as frequent in the South East. However beware as the differences can get rather blurred as they frequently cross to produce hybrids. Otherwise the Midland Hawthorn tends to bloom earlier and prefer more shaded woodland.

So next time you are admiring may blossom, have a closer look and check out the styles. It gets a bit addictive - although my neighbours are getting increasingly suspicious of my actions.

(1) Filed Guide to Trees and Shrubs of Britain (Reader’s Digest Nature Lover’s Library)

Friday, 7 May 2010

Poisonous claws and gonopods

I’ve recently attended two courses looking at invertebrates, and focussed on the ultimate ‘creepy crawlers’, millipedes and centipedes; the many legged creatures that derive their names from the Latin for foot, ‘pedis’.

It’s been fascinating looking in detail at these mini-beasts, including poisonous claws and gonopods (genitalia). There is frequent confusion between the two groups, with an assumption that millipedes have many more legs than centipedes. This is true in some cases, but the key differences are that Millipedes have two legs per body segment (hence their classification as Diplopoda), whereas centipedes have only one (Chilopoda). Otherwise there is great variety in leg numbers, even within species, from the fast surface scurrying ‘stone centipedes’ (Lithobius species - see image above) with 15 pairs to long winding ‘earth centipedes’ (Geophilomorpha) with up to 101 pairs. Millipedes include those that roll up into a tight ball (the Pill Millipede, Glomeris marginata) , and the snake millipedes with their numerous legs enabling them to glide over the surface like their namesake and also often curl into snake like spirals when disturbed. All centipedes are carnivorous using their poisonous claws, an adapted leg, to immobilise their prey. In contrast the millipedes are primarily feeders of leaf litter and dead wood, playing an important role in breaking down leaf litter. The millipedes can also be long lived, such as the Pill Millipede which has been recorded as living for 11 years (*).

The best places to find them are under logs & stones and in leaf litter in woods and gardens. I've found all the above types in my garden in the last two days. Just lift up pot or stone and see what’s there – but please don’t forget to place things back to where you moved them from as you may destroy a mini-home and its long-term tenants.

*To identify and read more about these animals and many others that can be found in similar places, try ‘Animals under logs and stones’ by C.Philip Wheater & Helen Read (Naturalist Handbook series, number 22). 

Thursday, 15 April 2010

Cuckooflower is a cabbage

As we all know too well Spring is late this year and what flowers there have been are sparse. Our local hedgebanks and verges have been dominated with Celandines and Violets, but little else. Driving home yesterday I caught a glimpse of another colour as I turned down a local lane. I pulled over to investigate and was welcomed by the mauve flowers of Cuckooflowers.

The Cuckooflower (Cardamine pratensis), also known as Lady’s-smock, is a common plant of meadows and moist woods. A literal translation from its Latin name is meadow (pratensis) cress (from the Greek, kardamis). Other wildlife shares the specific epithet, ‘pratensis’ in a similar way such as; Meadow Sage (Salvia pratensis) and Meadow Pipit (Anthus pratensis). The Cardamines are a large genus of pungent herbs, many known as bitter cresses, and part of the larger Crucifer or Cabbage family. The crucifers are so named due to having 4 free petals arranged in a cross. It is hard to see the cabbage in a cuckooflower unless you have let your brassicas go to flower and then the yellow cruciferic petals become all too familiar.

The closely related bitter cresses, such as Wavy Bitter-cress (Cardamine flexuosa) are common in our garden at the moment, and are a great addition to a salad, sandwich or simply to graze on. The Cuckooflower is also very edible and once used as a salad vegetable (*). However, I would rather leave them to enliven the verge and feed other wildlife such as the Orange Tip butterfly.

(*) Plants for a Future (

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

Oh my sweet Violet!

In the last week ‘Violets’ have started to appear frequently on our local hedgebanks and around our garden at the Pinfold (picture shows Violets amongst other woodland plants). I’ve been having fun trying to identify them, which is not easy from casual observation, and made more challenging by frequent hybridisation and escapes from gardens into the local countryside. In Britain, the Common Dog-violet (Viola riviniana) is the commonest, but these are not easy to distinguish from others such as the Early Dog-violet (V. reichenbachiana) and Hairy violet (V. hirta). Key differences are; pointed or blunt sepals, features of the spurs (hollow projection at rear of petals) and hairiness. However the Sweet Violet (V. odorata) is easier to identify as it is the only fragrant Violet, with its characteristic ‘parma violet’ aroma. The only difficulty is that in trying to avoid picking flowers I have to prostrate myself to these low growing plants and face the embarrassment of being caught with my nose, dog-like to the ground.

The fragrance of the Sweet Violet has not escaped the attention of scientists interested in its potential as a natural means to control insect pests. Indeed, used as a plant extract it has been shown to be very effective at repelling pests including the yellow fever mosquito and a malarial carrying insect (*). Other uses of the Sweet Violet’s attractiveness are as a decorative addition to salads, perfumery and to flavour breath fresheners (**). I’ve even seen recipes for; Sweet Violet Syrup, sugared violets, and used in iced tea and champagne.

*Amer, A. and Mehlhorn, H. (2006) Repellency effect of forty-one essential oils against Aedes, Anopheles, and Culex mosquitoes. Parasitology Research, 99 (4):478-490
** Plants for a Future (

Thursday, 1 April 2010

One Chiffchaff does not make a Spring

I find this a strange time of year. Last weekend I sat on our veranda in the sunshine with a beer looking down on the belated daffodils. In the woodland I could hear a solitary Chiffchaff’s (Phylloscopus collybita) “Chiff ...chaff...”, the characteristic sound of the first of our ‘summer’ migrants to return to our warming weather. Spring felt well and truly sprung. But today I am back inside with my woolly hat back on, having retreated from the garden by an icy wind. It seems that the weather and nature have become confused; not sure whether to let winter go or to leap into spring. Last week we passed the vernal equinox, marking the point when day and night lengths are equal. Day length sends important messages to much of our wildlife, triggering growth, birdsong and nest building. But the weather does not tie itself so neatly to the trend, oscillating this way and that, challenging the more optimistic wildlife that tries to get ahead of the rest.

The Chiffchaff’s diet is mainly insects. Poor weather will hold back their activity and emergence, making it difficult for their predators to find and dine on them. However it is the male Chiffchaff’s that arrive first and as they are larger than their female counterparts (such physical differences are technically referred to as dimorphism), they are better able to tolerate colder weather with their greater body mass (*). I hope it warms up before the more delicate females arrive and we can soon forget the last gasp of winter’s chill.

*Catry, P., Lecoq, M., Araujo, A., et al. (2005) Differential migration of chiffchaffs Phylloscopus collybita and P ibericus in Europe and Africa. Journal of Avian Biology , 36 (3): 184-190

Thursday, 25 March 2010

Coltsfoot is a Wort

Coltsfoot or Colt's Foot (Tussilago farfara) is a strange looking plant, with its flowers resembling a dandelion stuck on an asparagus shoot. From February through to April this perennial sends up flowers that pre-empt leaf growth on upright leafless scaly stems. They are often found in patches with linking underground rhizomatous growth. I've found two patches this week near my home, one in an arable field amongst a crop for pheasant cover (see image), and the other on a roadside/woodland edge.

The plant has a number of alternative common names, including Coughwort. 'Wort' is often used as part of old names for plants with a medicinal use by combining it with the part of the human body they were believed to provide a cure or health benefit. So Coughwort was used as a cough remedy, Nipplewort (Lapsana communis) for sore nipples and Pilewort (Lesser Celandine) for guess what! Of course there was often very little evidence of medicinal benefits and was often simply based on the plant having the appearance of a body part, such as Spleenwort. However Coltsfoot does appear to contain some interesting chemicals, including 'tussilagone' with an anti-inflammatory action(*), which is of pharmacological interest. So maybe some of those medieval herbalists were on to something with Coltsfoot.

*Hwangbo, C., Lee, H.S., Park, J., et al. (2009) The anti-inflammatory effect of tussilagone, from Tussilago farfara, is mediated by the induction of heme oxygenase-1 in murine macrophages. International Immunopharmacology, 9 (13-14): 1578-1584

Monday, 15 March 2010

Japanese invader

In our first year at Pinfold cottage we were rather suprised by the emergence of one particular plant. In February last year appeared what resembled giant boils on the southern bank of the garden stream. These rapidly opened up and transform into baby cauliflower-like flowers (see picture), attracting early woodland insects. These we soon learnt were the forerunners of the even bigger leaf parts of Giant Butterbur (Petasites japonicus). As the latin name implies, these plants originate from Japan, being introduced to Great Britain. They have since become naturailsed, preferring damp places on roads and riversides, characterised by there huge leaves up to 1 metre across. The banks of our woodland garden are therefore ideal for this plant to proliferate and so did require some management last year.

In their native country the flowers are prized for their flavouring to miso soup and soy sauce, whilst the flowering stems can be eaten cooked(1). The leaf stalks can also be boiled and eaten like rhubarb; hence its other common name, Bog Rhubarb (1). It has also been used as a traditional medicine for a number of conditions going back to the Middle Ages for the plague, and more recently for migraine (2), having been the subject of clinical trials. But be careful before you try any self-remedies as the extraction of active ingredients (mainly from the roots) is complex.
Other uses include using the large leaves as an umbrella (hence its name from the Greek word for a large brimmed hat, the Petasos) or wrapping up butter (before the days of refrigeration), and the leaf stalks as walking sticks.

(1) Plants for a Future website -

Thursday, 11 March 2010

Roe'd Deer

I was driving home with the family last weekend on the A1 in Yorkshire when I spotted a deer (Roe Deer, Capreolus capreolus) run onto the carriageway in front of traffic. Several cars braked and swerved, but it quickly leapt over the central reservation and across the opposite carriageway. It appeared just luck that it was not hit by a car, and so I can only assume that it was in some panic to take such a reckless risk. Indeed it seemed full of adrenalin as it continued its mad dash almost in parallel with us as we continued south. Obvious to us was its white rump which apparently expands when alarmed by raising the relevant hairs.

The Forestry Commission estimate the number of Roe Deer in the UK at about half a million; quite a comeback from its extinction in England during the 18th century. This recovery from remnant populations in the Scottish Highlands has been facilitated by reintroductions. However a survey conducted by the Highways Agency in 1998 concluded that there were 20'000 to 42'000 road traffic accidents involving deer per annum. They also estimated that each human injury accident cost approximately £50'000 to the economy. Since deer populations have shown continued steady growth over recent years, this must be a growing concern for everyone. There are therefore many measures to reduce such incidents, including fencing, roadside reflectors and signage at known crossover deer routes. Of course we can all take our own action to reduce the likelihood by adopting a more defensive driving approach; in our case we were seconds from a potential multi-vehicle pile up.

A little further on I spotted a weasel on the verge, which along with the many other wildlife observations I experience whilst driving, reminded me how versatile wildlife is in adapting to man's encroachment on their habitat, and how opportunistic some species can be. Perhaps we can all show a bit more consideration in the way we drive, and thereby reduce wildlife and human tradegy.

Thursday, 4 March 2010

Don’t knock Dunnocks

I’ve been watching a group of Dunnocks (Prunella modularis) over the last few days feeding near our birdtable and noticed how frequently there are three individuals. This bird, also known as the Hedge Sparrow, is rather shy and retiring and so often over looked. But as they say, you need to keep an eye on the quiet ones! It is closely related to the Alpine Accentor (Prunella collaris) which inhabits the French Pyrenees and other accentor species which live primarily in mountain habitats. Indeed the Dunnock is a montane bird over much of its European distribution. So what is doing in our gardens?

Now I also recall from my childhood reading about this bird being an unusual bigamist – each female courts two male escorts. My bird books indicate that it is a bit more complicated than this with various ratios of male to female when it comes to the mating game. However research has found that a female has more reproductive success if she has more than one male (polyandry), usually two, helping her with the brood. There is usually one dominant male (the ‘alpha’) and a subordinate. But to the casual observer it is usually impossible to know that all this gamesmanship is being played out, particularly as the sexes are near identical in appearance. It does lead the question of whether other birds show similar behaviour, and interestingly there is evidence to support this, such as with the Alpine Accentor.

Other research (*Langmore et al.) has shown that when female Dunnocks are under competitive pressure for breeding with other females they increase their testosterone levels and this prompts more singing to compete for males. Again a bit of a physiological/behavioural sex reversal.

....And then to complicate matters further, the Dunnock is also prey to the crafty Cuckoo (Cuculus canorus), laying its similar speckled egg in the host nest for the Dunnocks to raise as an obese protégé.

Perhaps not such a dull life for this little brown bird, having descended from the mountains with its strange sexual behaviour.

* Langmore, N.E., Cockrem, J.F. and Candy, E.J. (2002) Competition for Male Reproductive Investment Elevates Testosterone Levels in Female Dunnocks, Prunella modularis. Proceedings: Biological Sciences, 269 (1508):2473-2478

Monday, 22 February 2010

Nuclear fallout

During last week's half-term I spent a few days with friends in Wivenhoe, Essex. Between the rain and snow showers we got out to the coast near Bradwell, infamous for the nuclear power station (currently disused). However nearby is the Bradwell Cockle Spit nature reserve characterised by its shell banks and established to protect shore nesting birds such as the Little Tern (Sterna albifrons).

On a cold February afternoon we were treated to the spectacle of wintering waders amassing during the high tide and performing their frequent sky shows. Triggered by passing raptors or perhaps just for practice, up they would go with synchronised twisting and flashing; dark then light they whirled over the waves like a mobile mexican wave. The most spectacular display however was as they flew close to the water surface like giant glitter catching the winter sun. These flocks were mainly Knot (Calidris canutus), mixed with Dunlin (Calidris alpina), Grey Plover (Pluvialis squatarola) and Ringed Plover (Charadrius hiaticula). The theory is that this community behaviour confuses predators such as peregrine, that patrol shorelines hunting such prey. Whilst we were there we witnessed a kestrel causing such a reaction.

On the shore itself we found a dead wader (see picture) which with the slightly downturned and longish beak was identified as a Dunlin. This species can be easily confused with less common species due to great variability in size and plumage colouration. It was clearly a fairly recent death, but the cause not. Interestingly further up the beach we found a dead fox and rat. Quite a death toll for one walk.

Thursday, 11 February 2010

Are Snowdrops whiter than white?

In recent winters, Snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) have been as close as we have come to snow in the lowland gardens of Britain. In the wood at the Pinfold at this time of year, they carpet the banks with their white hanging lanterns, bringing a lightness back from the brown sludge of leaf decay. Look closer though at this early flowering plant and you will see what look like two sets of petals of differing size. These are in fact 'tepals' and the Snowdrop has three larger outer ones and three smaller inner ones. Tepal is a term used where the sepals (usually the green and leaf like outer part of flowers providing protection) resemble petals (usually the colourful part of flower). Look closer still and you will notice what look like green brush strokes on the tepals. It has been assumed that these markings act as nectar guides for insects which then incidently act as pollinators. However more recent research by Aschan and Pfanz (*) have shown that they also provide a potentially important additional area for photosynthesis. With relativeley small and late emergent leaves, these photosynthetic 'patches' assist in local production of nectar to attract insects and later with seed production. This would seem to offset some of the high energy costs of the plant devoted to reproductive structures; a bit like solar panels on a house contributing to the homes energy balance.
So next time you see a Snowdrop, bend down and have a closer look!
* Aschan, G. and Pfanz, H (2006) Why Snowdrop (Galanthus nivalis L.) tepals have green marks? Flora, 201 (8): 623-632.

Monday, 1 February 2010

Garden Birdwatch 2010

Did you take part in this years RSPB 'Garden Birdwatch'? If so, you joined tens of thousands of others in probably the worlds biggest mass exercise in nature observation; quite a testimony to the success of the RSPB. With its humble beginnings as a campaign organisation to stop the killing of ostriches for the trophy of rich women adding feathers to their hats, the RSPB now has over a million members giving it quite a voice in determining conservation action and increasingly the ear of politicians eager to tap into such a large vote.

The garden birdwatch is not really 'citizen science', but more an opportunity to engage the general public more actively in observing what goes on outside their windows and beyond the comfort of a heated home in winter. The RSPB will of course publish some headlines from the data submitted by the public announcing any change in rankings of our top 10 garden birds. Recent big risers have been Long-tailed Tits (Aegithalos caudatus), who have successfully mastered the peanut hanger. I can endorse this from my observations on Sunday, being the second most abundant species. As I child this bird was quite a sighting. In contrast the Song Thrush (Turdus philomelos) has slipped on the proverbial snake in terms of its rank, out of the top 10. Common in the past in gardens full of snails without the current proliferation of slug pellets protecting gaudy flowers. As a boy I loved finding the little 'anvils', an object used by the song thrush to smash the shells of snails. I'm glad to say that our resident thrush made an appearance in the allotted one hour. Out top bird however this year was the Great Tit (Parus major) with six seen at one time. Their aggression gives them prime access to the fat balls, their favourite food in our garden. The birds that made a no-show that I had hoped to count were the Jay (Garralus glandarius), Nuthatch (Sitta europaea) , Treecreeper (Certhia familiaris) and Great-spotted Woodpecker (Dendrocopus major). So I was rather amused by the appearance of the woodpecker today, as if to say, "stuff these surveys!" Maybe we'll get him for Garden Birdwatch 2011.

Monday, 18 January 2010

Charming birds

The snow has gone from the local area refreshing the landscape view. The picturesque Narnian outlook blanketing fields and coating trees with a magical sparkling white has been transformed back to the drab winter norm of browns and sludgy colours. However admist the relative gloom are suprising signs of spring that at least gives us future hope from the winter hues. Pointy snowdrop growth mixed with bluebells push upwards despite the weather, eager to make the most of well lit woodland before the shade of leaves.

The birds also seem to have shifted their poise, from puffed up hungry desperadoes seeking food, to pulling back a notch on the survival scale, to find time to sing and think of spring activities. Late this afternoon I was therefore taken aback by the noise of a large group of goldfinches, known collectively as a CHARM, that had landed in a tree in the field next to our garden. Quick scans and counting revealed a flock of at least 50, as groups came and went with their constant lively chatter. The latin name Cardeulis cardeulis is presumably derived from it frequently feeding on seeds from thistles, including those from Carduus family. But why a 'charm'? It would seem to be a collective noun used for goldfinces and some other birds since medieval times. A quick internet research did not reveal an answer, but they are certainly very charming birds! If you know, or would like to make a suggestion, please email me at

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Why knot?

Do you know how the knot, a small sandpiper, got its name?

I recently came across the answer whilst reading this weekends Guardian. The author Margaret Atwood wrote an article, 'Act now to save our birds', in which she describes her new role working for Birdlife International, personal birding experiences and her fears for the future.

The knot (Calidris canutus), a wading bird that feeds on British shorelines in the winter, is named after King Canute or Knut, who infamously tried to stop the incoming tide.

The full article can be found at

Monday, 11 January 2010

Murder at the Pinfold

I sat eating beans on toast with the family at our home, the Pinfold, with half an eye on the garden. Outside the kitchen window we have a birdtable, fat ball and peanut hangers. These have proved increasingly popular during the recent cold snap, attracting; tits, robins, thrushes, the occassional nuthatch and woodpecker. We have also observed several failed attempts by a sparrowhawk(s) to catch these birds unawares. We rarely see more than it flash past, often alerted by the sudden panic that it provokes. Yesterday however it was successful. A flash. Panic. Empty swinging hangers. We looked about and spotted a male perched on a nearby horizontal tree bough beginning to pluck a long-tailed tit. Before long the snowy branch was stained red as it expertly processed its meal. For at least fifteen minutes the family took turns to watch; partly in distaste (well at least my recently converted vegan daughter), but mainly in wonder at the perfection of the bird and its efficient execution technique. We could also take our time admiring the bird's sleekness, orange facial blush markings and striped pyjama like legs with yellow stick legs. It may seem to be a cruel act, but we can't have such top predators without the numerous small birds. Fortuneately the long-tailed tit is a rare success story over the last decade or so as they have adapted to feeding on garden hangers, and as a result is now one of our top 10 garden birds according the the RSPB.