28 July 2010 ~ 0 Comments

Wood Sorrel (Oxalis acetosella)

Wood sorrel
Creative Commons License photo credit: Leo-setä

Don’t ask me why but I have a real soft spot for Wood Sorrel (Oxalis acetosella). I first heard about Wood Sorrel as a teenager when watching Ray Mears back on the Tracks show (anyone remember that one?!). As a woodsman, Mears sung the praises of this simple little plant that he used as a herb when wild cooking, which apparently tastes like apple peel with a pleasant bite to it – perfect for stuffing fish before baking.

One of my favourite habitats of all is deciduous woodland – where Wood Sorrel typically grows – and it always makes me smile to see it. Fortunately whilst certainly not a showy plant, it is very easy to identify.

In essence, Wood Sorrel looks rather like a large clover, though the leaves rather than being a dark green, often with some white mottling, are actually more the colour of a Golden Delicious apple. Yes, they taste of apple and they even look apple-coloured!

Favoring shaded, woody areas they are a common-enough plant and I was lucky enough earlier this year to find some Wood Sorrel just coming into leaf. I hope the photograph below illustrates how attractive and “sculptural” the leaves look as they are opening up.

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24 July 2010 ~ 0 Comments

Interesting Jay Behaviour

It's my nut..and your NOT having it...
Creative Commons License photo credit: law_keven

On my visit to Woods Mill Nature Trail, managed by the Sussex Wildlife Trust, I heard a lot of commotion in a small forest area where a Jay was. Creeping forward to see what was going on I observed what I consider to be some fascinating behaviour.

The Jay was standing on the top of a tree stump, picking at something whilst calling at the top of it’s lungs with that strange rattling call that Jays have. But what was it doing?

It turns out that the Jay was flying down to the ground and picking off individual, furled leaves of a Lords And Ladies plant nearby. Then it was taking the still-rolled leaf over to the tree stump and pecking at them with it’s beak.

To my knowledge Jays don’t eat Lords And Ladies so I can only assume that perhaps insects try to hide in the tube created by the new rolled-up leaves and this Jay was trying to remove them.

I’ve never seen anything like this before so if you can shed any light on the situation please leave me a comment by filling in the box at the end of this article.

Below are photos of the tree stump with some leftover leaves, the individual plant that the Jay was plucking leaves from and a close-up of the leftover leaves showing where the Jay had been pecking them.

07 July 2010 ~ 0 Comments

A Visit To The Sussex Wildlife Trust

The Sussex Wildlife Trust is based at Woods Mill Nature Trail which hosts not just the SWT offices but also a considerable amount of carefully-managed reserve. Whilst small in size, the reserve offers ample parking and a huge diversity of habitats including deciduous woodland, open pasture and aquatic and semi-aquatic environments thanks to the river running through the site and the man-made pools and ponds.

Apparently originally privately-owned, the site hosts a fascinating range of old masonry lying around close to the office buildings which give the site a strange, almost monastic feel, and at least for nerds like me provide a lot of added interest as you try to figure out what you’re looking at and what it was going to be used for.

I visited the Woods Mill Nature Trail in late April/early May but thanks for work commitments I have only now had the time to write up this little piece about the site. When I visited earlier on in the year there were signs of plants and animals everywhere.

A (private) deciduous wood on the site was simply dripping with wild flowers like Stitchwort and Bluebells and you could well imagine deer and foxes bounding around in the woods. Incidentally I was also lucky enough a few weeks ago to get a decent photo of some Bluebell seed pods now that the flowering season has come to an end and the seeds are ready to disperse.

The open pasture, with a stream running through it, was alive with a variety of grasses and wild flowers including Lady’s Smock which was attracting Orange Tip butterflies in droves. This area is also apparently excellent for swallows and swifts hunting insects and also for birds of prey flowing low looking for small mammals to catch.

Indeed, the Trust hosts several nest boxes specifically for birds of prey – kestrels and owls for example – which are used on a regular basis and so visitors have an excellent potential of getting great views of these animals going about their normal everyday lives.

Lastly in the evening a number of species of bat may be seen flying low over the pasture hunting for insects after the swallows have gone to roost for the evening.

Education is an integral element of the site and so school parties and professional training courses are invited in on a regular basis. One interesting element of this are the dipping pools and lake which allow children to find and identify a host of aquatic animals. On the day I visited the pools were literally alive with newts and every few seconds another would swim elegantly to the top for a breath of air before disappearing beneath the surface to continue with their mating.

All these various habitats also encourage a wide range of plants and personally I was particularly taken by the sweetly-scented Yellow Archangel with it’s crown of buttery-yellow flowers which the bees couldn’t stay away from. The simple yet elegant Garlic Mustard was also growing strongly in the shade of the trees near the dipping pond attracting numerous hover flies.

Yellow Archangel

Yellow Archangel

Garlic Mustard

Garlic Mustard

Lastly, as a self-confessed bug fanatic, I happily spent quite some time watching a number of wolf spiders hunting amongst the nettles near the entrance to the site and these nettle-beds themselves provide food and homes for a range of our British butterfly species such as Peacocks and Small Tortoiseshell.

In many ways Woods Mill is a perfect day out. Certainly the site is reasonably small but with excellent parking and toilets available, together with a huge variety of species there really is something here for every nature lover. Take the time to just sit yourself down on one of the many benches scattered around the site and just sit back and watch as the wildlife goes about it’s normal business.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank the Sussex Wildlife Trust for their hospitality during our visit and I would also strongly recommend that if you are based in or near Sussex that you seriously consider joining the SWT. They do some amazing work – about which I hope to bring you more information over the next few weeks – and are a passionate group working tirelessly to protect our native wildlife. More information on the Sussex Wildlife Trust is available from their website which can be found at http://www.sussexwt.org.uk

03 July 2010 ~ 2 Comments

Mystery Moth

For those of you know I don’t know personally, one of my hobbies is keeping and breeding leaf insects. The typical hobbyist food of leaf insects in the UK is bramble so every week or so I find myself out in the countryside with a carrier bag and pair of scissors taking some leaves back home (all whilst trying not to get spotted by someone else so I don’t have to explain myself and look like a weirdo!).

At this time of year of course hundreds of different invertebrates use bramble as a food source or a place to hide and so I do my best to choose leaves without spiders on, cookoo spit and so on so they can carry on to adulthood.

However a few weeks ago I missed something. And that something was a couple of caterpillars. These lived perfectly happily with the leaf insects, feeding on the fresh bramble leaves that I gave them until they both pupated.

In the picture above you can see both one of the caterpillars and the other having already turned into a pupae.

The questions is – what are these pupae going to turn into? My assumption due to (a) their size and (b) the way they both pupated down on the ground rather than attaching themselves to a plant are that they are moths rather than butterflies but only time will tell. I also believe they are the same species due to the similarity in appearance of both the caterpillars and they resultant pupae.

Assuming they hatch out successfully I’ll try to get some photos and let you know what appeared!

29 June 2010 ~ 0 Comments

How To Tell A Primrose From A Cowslip

When primroses (Primula vulgaris) and cowslips (Primula veris) are in flower then telling the difference between these two spring flowers is the essence of simplicity. Whilst the primrose has classic open flowers, the clowslip has a number of smaller, bellshaped flowers attached to a stem held high above the plant.

However when these two plants aren’t in flower, identification becomes rather more difficult due to the similar appearance of the leaves.

However there *is* a way to tell the difference between the foliage of the cowslip and the primrose and that is to look towards the base of the leaf. In primroses, the leaf gently tapers down to a point while in the cowslip the leaf tapers down far quicker leaving only a very narrow area of leaf towards the leaf base.

The photos below help to illustrate the difference in foliage of these two similar-looking plants to help you to easy differentiate them.

Cowslip Leaf

Cowslip Leaf

Primrose Leaf

Primrose Leaf

09 May 2010 ~ 3 Comments

Websites To Help You Identify British Butterflies

Coral hairstreak, on butterflyweed
Creative Commons License photo credit: Benimoto

Whilst I love to see butterflies, I am far from an expert and so regularly find myself leafing through books and websites to learn more about a species I have seen recently.

During my research I have come across a number of useful online resources for identifying British butterflies and their caterpillars and thought that it might be useful for other readers to gather the best resources into one place.

Possibly the best place to start your identification journey is with a visit to Butterfly Conservation’s UK Butterflies site which has neatly categorized all of the UK butterfly species, with clear photos of each making identification reasonably easy for most species.

As well as the photos, this site also groups butterflies by type, helping to narrow down your search and also has a handy “Flying This Week” chart on the left-hand side of the page which is a great place to start your hunt.

Butterfly Conservation’s main website also has some very useful resources including a complete A to Z listing of UK butterflies and a special “butterfly identifier” where you can select options from a form which will then offer up possible identifications.

Also worth mentioning is UK Leps which has lots of nice photos and information but unfortunately there is no overview feature. Because of this, UK Leps is probably not so useful for identification when compared to the two Butterfly Conservation websites but once you have worked out what your butterfly is, the site provides plenty more useful information on the species.

Whilst the flying adult butterflies are often the most visible form, it is of course not unusual to find caterpillars and these can potentially be even more problematic to identify.

What’s That Caterpillar is a great resource for identification of British caterpillars. To make your identification a little easier, try to identify the actual plant that you find the caterpillar on and then use one of the various lists of larval food plants to narrow down the options.

Some of the best lists of larval food plants I have found are Foremost Butterflies and Over The Garden Gate.

Lastly, if you have some top identification websites that you use for lepidoptera, please leave me a comment so we can all benefit from your knowledge 🙂

07 May 2010 ~ 1 Comment

Speckled Wood Butterflies (Pararge aegeria)

Speckled Wood Butterfly 3
Creative Commons License photo credit: ahisgett

In spring and summer a visit to a sunny opening near a ancient hedgerow or in a forest will often reveal large numbers of this elegant butterfly who can be so active as to make identification quite a challenge.

Appearance

The general appearance of the Speckled Wood (Pararge aegeria) butterfly is one of a brown butterfly of average size, covered in a number of spots which may range in colour from pale cream through to a yellow-orange. Closer inspection reveals a far more delicate-looking butterfly with attractive markings and gentle “scalloping” of the posterior wings.

Habitat

This butterfly is most often found, as the name suggests, around the margins and openings of woods and hedgerows where it is often a very active flyer, only settling to rest occasionally.

Food

The caterpillars feed on a variety of grasses most notably couch grass.

Interesting Facts

Whilst this butterfly is often seen reasonably early in the season from April onwards, it does not overwinter as an adult butterfly typically but is far more likely to see out the colder months either as a large caterpillar or as a pupae, ready to hatch in the spring as the weather warms up.

07 May 2010 ~ 0 Comments

This Week’s Nature Tweets From 2010-05-07

  • Most perfect morning today. After a wet weekend today is bright and sunny with a perfect cloudless blue sky. Just stunning! #
  • Anyone got plans for National Moth Night on 15th of May? #
  • RT @nature_org: Google gets wind in its sails, will invest $38.8 mil. in North Dakota wind farm: http://tcrn.ch/ccO7PY #
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05 May 2010 ~ 3 Comments

How To Identify Swallows, Swifts And House Martins

One of the perennial problems at this time of year is figuring out whether that bird that just flew overhead at the speed of light was a swallow, a swift or a house martin.

But fortunately while these birds are all superficially similar, there are a range of differences between them that can make telling these three bird species apart reasonably simple once you know what to look for.

Swallows

Wire Fence Sitter
Creative Commons License photo credit: fauxto_digit

Swallows are most easily identified by their red chin and the longer feathers on either side of the tail which stick out like streamers and make them easy to spot in flight.

Swifts

Lesser Swallow-tailed Swift
Creative Commons License photo credit: Michael Woodruff

Swifts are one of those amazing birds which barely ever come to ground to rest except to nest spending virtually their whole life on the wing. High pitched screeching and curved, sickle-shaped wings together with a short tail help to identify this species who can often be seen in warm summer days performing acrobatics in the sky as they hunt for their insect prey.

House Martins

house martin
Creative Commons License photo credit: Generalnoir

The house martin is probably the smallest of these three species and has a gently curved tail, unlike the squarer tail of the swift or the “streamers” of the swallow. They are most easily identified, however, by their white rump which can often be clearly seen even from some distance as these birds fly past.

03 May 2010 ~ 3 Comments

A Visit To Faulking Hill

Ah, one of those classic British place-names to put a smile on the face! I recently took a stroll to Faulking Hill in East Sussex to take a look at the scenes and wildlife on the chalk downloads found there.

Whilst the sun was out, the wild was howling across the open hillsides and so while there were some amazing views, wildlife was few and far between. Up on the exposed hillside there is little plant cover at all so while crows and magpies were seen on every hillside, there wasn’t a huge amount to see.

Fortunately later in my walk I wondered through a farm which *did* have far more plant cover and it was at that point that I started to see quite a bit of wildlife.

Firstly a fox cub appeared no more than 15-20 feet away from me, and much to my surprise as I scrambled for my camera, didn’t seem overly worried by me. Whether he was used to seeing farm workers or was desperate for food I’m not sure but he stayed around long enough for me to get a few photos of him. What a beautiful creature.

However the guinea fowl in the next field along didn’t seem to pleased to see him as they squawked non-stop at the top of their lungs!

Secondly I was lucky enough to see a young house mouse dashing along the side of a farm building and he stopped long enough for me to creep up and get a few snaps of him in the grass by the wall.