A little Mediterranean in the Midlands

It has been warm, even hot today . A trip to the Olive nursery in Northamptonshire was like a wander in Greece.

This hot Mediterranean feel was further added to by the appearance of a common lizard basking in the sun in the gravel under an olive tree.

The lizard ran between the wonderful trees.It was extremely quick.

This little lizard has a lifespan of 5-6 years. It is protected by the wildlife and countryside Act 1981.

An interesting fact about the skittish reptile is that it incubates it’s eggs inside of its body and the ‘gives birth’ to live young.They mate in April/May and have 3-11 young in July.

There are three lizards native to the UK they are

Common lizard

Sand lizard

Slowworm

The common lizard is the only reptile native to Ireland.

A fantastic encounter with a brilliant little lizard in sunny Northamptonshire.

Willows in the wind

The seeds from the willows are blowing in the wind. They are attached to plants, trunks and leaves.

The seeds are forming a floating layer on the river too.

The amount of seeds is amazing , the dispersal by the wind is obviously successful.

The sun was out and there were a few tiny damselflies flitting about. For scale you can see how delicate they are sitting on my finger. I am looking forward to spotting damselflies and dragonflies over the next months.

The birdsong is so vibrant and loud as you walk through the wooded and hedge lined path but the singers themselves are very hard to spot.This is a path we often explore it runs parallel to the river. The small lake looked lovely in the sun .

The number of wildflowers continues to increase with every walk.

Even in the short grass creeping plants with small lovely flowers are common. This is Musk Stork’s-bill. It is covered in long hairs and has a strong musk scent.

We have been busy in the garden putting in a wildlife pond. The digging and now the liner is in. Tomorrow we are off to find plants and we are really excited to watch it develop.

Really hoping that in the summer a damsel fly or two might discover the pond , fingers crossed .

Into the beautiful blue

On a Sunny morning four nature table explorers , Paul,Lesley, Tim and me all set off on a bluebell adventure.

Leaving Northampton behind we drove west towards Daventry, the landscape changes and becomes more rolling.A left turn and we were soon at the village of Everdon but another left turn took us up the hill to the woods called Everdon Stubbs.

These broadleaf woods with areas of open glades , coppiced trees and large older trees is carpeted in beautiful bluebells ( Hyacinthoides non-scripta)

There is something almost magical about bluebell woods, the colour , the scent and the birds flying and singing in a paradise.

Here is a little taste of that paradise so you can hear the birds and imagine you are there.50 percent of the world population of bluebells grow in the U.K. in one wood there are millions of bulbs. Bluebells are an indicator species for ancient woods. They provide nectar for bees, hoverflies and butterflies.

At this wood I really love the open glade areas , the bluebells grow in the grasses.

The team of four explorers enjoyed meandering through the scented paths and discovered other flowers amongst the bluebells.

There was a lot of large patches of Great Stitchwort (Stellaria holostea) these patches have a frothy appearance made up of white flowers. They have a lot of descriptive common names; wedding cakes and daddy’s shirt buttons are two I rather liked.

This is not a great photo but it does show how the Stitchwort grows amongst the bluebells.

Another flower in large numbers through the wood is the Yellow Archangel (Latium galeobdolon) These flowers will continue to bloom as the bluebells fade. It has leaves similar in shape to a nettle but has no sting … it is angelic,

The next beauty in this pageant in the wood is red campion , we have always called it bachelors button (Silene dioica). An interesting fact about this plant is that it is dioecious, this means that there are Male plants and female plants.

There are some fantastic stands of red campion in the road verges as well as the woods at the moment. They are tall attractive perennials with flowers providing nectar for pollinators.

This was a kaleidoscope of a walk mainly blue but punctuated with white, yellow and pink all alongside the fantastic young greens of the trees like this young sweet chestnut.

A great walk , these woods really lift your spirits. I say EXPLORE MORE !

Willow in the midst of things.

Willows are all around, at the edge the paths and banks , they perch on the edges they often form a backdrop to a walk.

The flowers are early in the year, pussy willows are a cheery sight as spring pushes forward. These early flowers are important for insects. On a sunny early spring walk the pussy Willow is alive with bees , flies and other flying insects feeding and pollinating.

The willow is the centre of an intricate web of food and survival ,which as we wander past on our walks isn’t obvious. This week I noticed that a patch of willows seemed a little ragged and stopped to investigate further. The leaves certainly looked attacked !

On closer inspection I noticed a large number of shiny green beetles.

These are willow leaf beetles (Plagiodera versicoloura)these hibernating adults appear with the emergence of the new willow leaves. Another beetle, Blue willow beetle ( Pharatora vulgatissima) also eats the leaves.

These beetle are part of an intricate food web supported by the willow tree. Take a look at this diagram. It is a pyramid of numbers , the willow tree is second up , look at the number of animals supported by the tree.

The tree, it’s leaves and flowers are involved In an intricate mechanism of survival.

This diagram shows a simple food web based on The willow.

When you look at a table to See how Many species of insects are supported by a tree the willow is right at the top under the oak . The numbers are very impressive.

Looking closely at the willows on this walk there were some tiny caterpillars, too small to identify. Butterflies that use the willow as a larval food plant are; the rare Purple Emperor (Apatura iris) the caterpillars feed on goat willow and lay eggs in grey and crack willow. Also the Camberwell Beauty , the Comma and the large Torroiseshell use willows as a food plant.

They are also eaten by moths including the Sallow Kitten, Sallow Clearwing,Lunar Horner Clearwing and the Dusky Clearwing.

These leaves seem a very popular food plant. The top five food plants for butterflies and moths are;English Oak, Willow species, Birches, Hawthorn and Blackthorn and of course Nettles.

A patch of nettles in the garden can increase biodiversity and is a food plant for several large butterflies.

I didn’t see any large caterpillars yet but will be keeping my eyes out as the month progresses.

I did spot this interesting invertebrate sitting on a leaf.

On further inspection the twigs were also covered in cuckoo spit which is the cover for developing froghoppers , sap sucking bugs. This Willow seems attacked on all fronts !

The birds were flitting in and out of the reeds and the willows.

This is a causeway between two large lakes and the swallows were diving and skimming all around us. There were reed warblers moving in and out of the reeds, almost impossible to track them with your eyes let alone the camera !

There is so much happening at a willow tree, birds associated with willow include the Willow Tit (Poecile Montana’s) this is listed as a red species. It is found in wetlands and areas of willow including gravel pits, which is the type of area near to us.

Willow warblers (Phylloscopus trochilus) is a summer visitor arriving from March. They eat insects, spiders , fruits and berries. Their eggs are so tiny that a clutch of three only weighs the same as a one pence piece !!

Along with all the animals associated with the Willow let’s not leave out Willows and people.

  • The compound in Aspirin comes from the bark of willow.
  • Fishing nets used in 8300BC were made of woven willow.
  • Some traditional Welsh coracles used willow for their frame.
  • Cricket bats are made of willow.
  • The wood is used to make boxes, broom, handles and many other everyday objects.
  • Willow wood can be used to make rope and string.
  • I will finish this tour of the wonderful willow with a scene from Wind in the Willows. I think a picnic rather like Ratty and Mole under a willow next to the river would be perfect !
  • All hail the humble Dandelion

    A measure of success can be how many offspring you produce , it can be what areas you colonise. On both these measures we have to admire the success of the Dandelion. Everywhere you look a golden flower or a gossamer ‘clock’ of seeds can be found. They are incredible colonisers they move in quickly. They produce parachuted seeds in huge numbers.

    The Dandelion ( Taraxacum officinale) has a composite flower, it is made of hundreds of individual florets. It has a tap root .

    All parts of the Dandelion are edible. A few weeks ago I had a bunch of Dandelion leaves in my veg box. These can be eaten as Salad or cooked like spinach ( only if clean no pesticides etc) The roots can be used to make a coffee type drink and the flowers for wine.

    Recently I have been reading articles about farming dandelions as a crop, it is easy to grow and adaptable.

    Dandelions attract bees,hover flies, beetles and butterflies as a nectar source.

    The sap of the Dandelion is white and milky and feels tacky. The sap contains latex. This latex was used as a source of rubber when traditional rubber was unavailable in WWII. Recently the idea of growing Dandelions for rubber has been developed and researched again. The tyre manufacturers Continental made car tyres from a material called taragum from Dandelion latex and won a prize for this development in 2014. The idea is to grow dandelions inside. Rubber tree plantations are a major source of deforestation, maybe Dandelions could be a more sustainable solution.

    Dandelion seeds are dispersed by the wind, each seed having a parachute structure.

    These clocks form one childhood game , telling the time . Blow the Dandelion clock , the numbers of blows equals the time ! This is not always accurate!

    Another story told to children is that if you pick a Dandelion you will wet the bed. This stems from the fact that Dandelion is a diuretic.

    The name Dandelion ‘Dent de lion’ translates as tooth of the lion. This name describes the shape of the leaves , like a lions mouth.

    Gardeners are not keen on Dandelions as they always seem to be where they are not wanted . They are hard to remove , they grow back from the tap root.

    They are a hugely successful and useful plant both as food , rubber ,for nectar and food for herbivores. The pet rabbits love them !

    The Dandelion clocks looked beautiful In the evening sun at the lakes ,as do the cows.

    Cuckoo calling

    This morning we heard a cuckoo calling , a real sound of spring. I also came across a wonderful slug, again a first this year . This slug was browsing some luxury growth rather like an expensive carpet . It was a Harrod’s quality foodstuff !This is the Large Black Slug (Arion ater) I love the orange colour along its edge. These slugs are mainly nocturnal, but they are often seen in the day on damp vegetation. They are omnivores eating, Carrion, dung and vegetation . They prefer rotting vegetation and are therefore not a real garden pest.They lay clusters of spherical eggs that can be seen sometimes when digging the garden.

    Today we walked at Stanwick Lakes and were treated to some great encounters with Great Crested Grebes.

    There is a super hide on one lake and the map shows another one further around.

    We were able to see the Grebe dive, catch and eat a fish. We also enjoyed watching them preen .

    When they attract a mate Great Crested Grebes go through a courtship dance of moves together. This one swam straight to me and the plumage looks great.

    We also saw some fastbswimming and strange grr grr noises I hadn’t seen or heard before.They are a very photogenic birds, looking forward to spotting some chicks.

    Walking across a strip of land between two lakes a Little Egret landed in front of us as Swallows swooped incredibly close to us at break neck speeds.

    A Little more sedate, a pair of Greylag Geese cruised by.

    The Greylag Goose (Anser anser) eats plants such as sedges,rushes and grasses , eating the roots, tubers, leaves, flowers and stems. They eat pondweed when in water.

    The edges of the lakes have large banks of reeds which are full of bird song occasionally a tiny bird springs out of them , just as you focus your eyes on it , it has gone back into the reeds.

    A sandy low island has been created in one lake and is noisily covered in black headed gulls . They are fascinating to sit and watch, it’s rather like a busy airport . There are birds sitting , birds eating and birds arriving and leaving. There is movement and sound all around.

    Following the path back for a coffee a tree creeper swiftly investigated and climbed a tree and flew off. Flowers caught my eye , a wild geranium and a vetch.

    This is a great area for a walk with lots to see plus a coffee place at the car park. It is £3.80 to park at the moment, rising to £4.80 in the summer.We have bought a years pass for £37 as we live close by and we will be coming regularly.

    A mornings walk full of brilliant discoveries. Ducks, tufted ducks, cormorants, coots, moorhens, swans, Great Crested Grebe, Little Egret, Swallows, Reed Warbler, Great Tit, Tree Creeper … these are just some of the birds not forgetting the cuckoo !

    We are looking forward to our next trip to Stanwick Lakes !

    Plants on parade- not so glamorous!

    At this time of year plants and flowers are growing and popping up almost hourly as the woods, fields and hedgerows fill out and the landscape is re- greened. The stars of the show are cowslips, primroses, bluebells and blossom laden trees.However quietly carpeting areas and being overlooked are the others…. the less glamorous but worth a look and a moment to appreciate and focus on. The list is long so I’m focusing on one short walk and the flowers I discovered.

    1. Plantain

    Ribwort Plantain ( Plantago lanceolata)- commonly known as lambs tongue.

    This plant is thought to be the most widespread plant in grassland in Britain, it is often found growing in waste land and in road verges. It has hairy stems and leaves with parallel veins . The pollen from Plantain is used as an identifying species for agriculture. The brown seed heads stay on the plant all winter and provide food for birds. A great game is played with the flower heads by children similar to conkers knocking the heads off.

    2.Herb Robert

    Herb Robert ( Geranium robertianum) with common name of stinking Bob amongst others.

    These delicate pink 5 petal tiny flowers are often found in shaded areas, woodlands , verges and waste land. It is a cranes bill flower, it’s leaves have a pungent ‘mouse’ smell. The leaves often have a red tinge , the stems are red and hairy. One of the traditional uses of Herb Robert was to treat nosebleeds.

    3.Wild Strawberries

    Wild Strawberry ( Fragaria Vesca)

    Wild strawberries produce tiny sweet fruits. I have a lovely memory of wild strawberries growing like a carpet under a field of ox-eye daisies. I spent a good twenty minutes sitting under the daisies eating strawberries in the sun .

    The famous designer William Morris used the wild strawberry in a famous print called ‘strawberry thief ‘ it is said he designed it after seeing a bird in his garden fly down, pick and eat a strawberry.

    4. Knapweed

    Common Knapweed ( Centaurea nigra), commonly known as ‘ hardheads’

    The knapweed flowers look like a thistle flower. They are composite flowers, this means that they are made up hundreds of florets packed tightly together, the same structure as the dandelion.Knapweed is a plant that attracts butterflies and is common is grassland and verges.

    5. Cow Parsley

    Cow Parsley (Anthriscus sylvestris)

    This delicate white almost frothy flower populates the road verges. It is a member of the Apiacae family. The flower has the structure of an umbrella. These umbrellas are called umbels. The divided leaves have an aniseed scent. The tops of these umbrella shaped flowers are a table top, these are often populated by flies, hoverflies, beetles and bees.

    6.Fumitory

    Fumitory (Fumaria officinalis), this has a common name of Earth Smoke.

    This is often found in waste ground , this is where the plant above was seen on bare ground at a construction site. Fumitory was described by Carl Linnaeus in 1753.

    7. Forget- me-not

    Forget -me -not (Myosotis sylvatica)

    I love this poem about forget -me -nots it was in a favourite book of mine bought on Hastings seafront.

    This tiny bright blue flower can be found in woodland edges , in grass , often in groups.

    This walk was also punctuated by buttercups, Dandelions , milk maids and more , a floral delight !

    Chaffinch Encounter

    The path around our normal Sunday morning stroll was closed due to fallen trees so we ventured forth on a new route.

    A Chaffinch was noisily flying across the path and stopped and sat for what seemed like ages.

    The chaffinch is a common sight in the U.K., there are about 6 million breeding pairs in the summer. The Male as in the picture above is brightly coloured with a pink breast. The females are dull and less striking. They build beautiful bowl shaped nests in the angle of a branch in a tree, this nest is carefully constructed with a soft moss lining and a lichen and spiderweb exterior. The pair have two clutches of eggs a year each of about 4-5 eggs. chaffinches eat all sorts of seeds but in the summer they also eat insects especially caterpillars.

    The chaffinch we were watching was noisy and very busy, they have a loud song and can be recognised as a ‘pink,pink’ sound.

    Birdsong is something I am really keen to learn, as you walk the soundtrack is in stereo but I need more knowledge !

    This walk at Wilson’s pits , an area of lakes formed from gravel working in the Nene Valley was full of interest and discoveries.

    The Hawthorn trees are in bloom and the scent is really strong and wafts over you as you walk.

    Hawthorn ( Crataegus monogyna)this tree has a range of other local names, May, white thorn, Quickthorn and more.

    Mature trees can reach 15 metres in height, we see lots of smaller Hawthorn and they are often in hedges.Hawthorn is important to more than 300 insect species. Caterpillars feed on the leaves including the lackey moth that I was fascinated with at aged 12! Much to my Mums annoyance as the caterpillars escaped my room and somehow ended up appearing in the airing cupboard!! Dormice eat the flowers ( what an amazing photo that would be) They provide nectar for pollinating insects.Hawthorn is also a great place for birds nests as it is densely branched.

    We were told by our grandparents that it was unlucky to pick this May blossom. Reading about this belief it seems that the outcome of picking the blossom bringing it into the house would cause illness and death to follow!

    The young leaves, flower buds and flowers are edible.During walks on a Sunday my Grandad would often eat Hawthorn leaves and pass me one to nibble he called them ‘ bread and cheese’.The fruit , bright red haws can be cooked and made into jelly to eat with meat which I have done, it can also be made into wine.

    This walk at Wilson’s pit was scattered with Hawthorn trees all smelling lovely.The small birds were flitting in and out and sitting on the very tops to sing.

    This photo is not quite in focus ,still learning the use of the lens but showing these birds favourite spot.

    The lakes formed from this gravel extraction were full of bird life too.

    Flying above us were red kites and buzzards.

    What is surprising is that all this wildlife is very close to the busy A45 and shows that areas close to people and activity can be full of interest and biodiversity. This site has an unusual beetle .

    I will be in the look out for this beetle Donacea claviers.

    A great walk in a new spot that we will returning to , hopefully we will find the beetle and maybe that elusive otter !

    Butterfly Days

    We have had a run of warm sunny days and the butterflies have been out in force. The two butterflies above are speckled woods that were tumbling and dancing in the sun. I thought this was a mating dance but after reading it could also be males in a disputed over sunny areas !!

    They were difficult to capture as a photo but I think the images give a good idea of their movement.

    The Speckled Wood (Pararge Algeria) is found in woodlands . The males perch in pools of sunlight and will rise up to intercept intruders, which is what we saw.

    In the last 40 years there has been an amazing 71% increase in distribution and a 84% increase in the abundance of this dancing butterfly.

    These butterflies mainly feed on honeydew in the tops of trees. They only feed on flowers early in the year when aphid numbers are low.

    Brimstone butterflies have been a feature of these three days of sun in different habitats, in meadows, lake sides and woods. They have also been seen in fluttering groups and sailing through vegetation and trees. The Brimstone (Gonepteryx rhamni) only lays one brood of eggs per year.The peak flying times for Brimstone is April and May, this is when hibernating adults emerge.There is another peak in August when the new generation reach adulthood.

    The larvae feed on Buckthorn and Alder Buckthorn.

    This picture shows the shape of the pale yellow wings , caught in mid flight by nature table explorer Tim who captured these flying shots.A great photo of the butterfly feeding , it’s wings looking quite leaf like.

    Another butterfly that has been all around us, actually usually just out of camera shot has been the Orange Tip (Anthocharus cardimines). Male and female orange Tips look different, the Male has bright orange tips to it’s wings whereas the female is white with black tips to it’s wings. They both have mottled green underwings.The caterpillars feed on plants from the crucifer family such as milk maids ( in the photo) they also feed on a large range of plants from the family. Orange Tips are one of the first butterflies to emerge that have not overwintered as an adult.

    The photo shows a female on milk maid.

    Another butterfly that was abundant in this sunny weather is the Holly Blue (Celastrina argiolus). These blue butterflies emerge early compared to other blue species. The larvae feed on the flower buds, berries and terminal buds of Holly in the Spring generation and Ivy in the Summer generation. These pretty butterflies are often seen in gardens. The numbers fluctuate significantly and this is because of a parasitic wasp called Listrodomus nycthemerus. This wasp has the Holly Blue as it’s only host, the wasp lays it’s eggs in the Holly Blue larvae. A single adult wasp emerges from the Holly Blue pupa !

    The Easter weekend of sun was full of butterflies , hover flies,bee flies,bumble bees , the list goes on,so many insects …BRILLIANT !

    Pasqueflowers on Parade

    These flowers were amazing , they carpet the short grass on the chalk hillside , the number of plants was wonderful. They are a beautiful deep mauve and a golden centre and hairy . They belong to the buttercup family ( Runnunculaceae) Their Latin name is Pulsatilla Vulgaris.

    We had a lovely sunny walk to see these flowers following the hard white chalk path past the golf course towards the brilliant natural chalk landscape beyond the manicured greens. We were at Therfield Heath close to Royston in Hertfordshire. This is one of the few areas of chalk grassland where the Pasqueflower can be seen in the UK and in these incredible numbers. the Pasqueflower is the county flower of Hertfordshire.

    Pasqueflowers are rare in the UK and they are classified as vulnerable on the vascular plant red data list.

    The Pasqueflower is seen at Easter time and is also known as the ‘anemone of passiontide’ Another interesting common name is ‘Dane’s Blood’ this name refers to the fact that the flower is often found growing on old barrows and burial mounds. ( undisturbed over long periods) however the myth behind the name suggests that the flowers spring from the spilt blood of Danes and Romans.

    All parts of the plant are poisonous.

    The seed heads that develop after the flower fades are attractive and look fantastic.

    When you sit down next to these beautiful little plants you realise that there are also a lot of snails on and around them in this chalk grassland.

    These are Heath snails ( Helicella itala).

    Walking from this open grassland we headed into Fox Covert an area of open Beech woodland. This is a place to come back to soon to see the White Helleborines in flower.

    Today the wood was full of dancing Brimstone butterflies sometimes in groups of three or four. The under-storey plants feel like they are growing as you walk past them. A lone pink bluebell caught my eye.

    This is a brilliant place to visit, find out more when the magazine comes out in July , read the article in Issue .1.Find out more about the magazine launch and publication and how you can get a copy by emailing naturetableexplorer@yahoo.com

    EXPLORE MORE