30 Days Wild – Week 3

For the last month, all through June, I’ve been taking part in #30dayswild. Now that June has come to an end, I am looking back on the activities which kept me feeling connected to nature through the month. The following post summarises Week 3 – feel free to click through the links to read more about any of these activities!

Week 4 summaries will follow!

Day 15 – Wildflowers and Stormy Skies
Another thundery showery day when the temptation is to stay inside. Resist it! Getting out and about and seeing how different the earth is after a good downpour makes an excellent activity for #30d…

Source: 30 Days Wild – Day 15

Day 16 – Wildflowers and Stormy Skies
Another grey showery day – has nobody informed the weather that it’s supposed to be June? After a dawn bat survey, where the dawn chorus was the only activity I witnessed, I called by a…

Source: 30 Days Wild – Day 16

Day 17 – Finding new local Orchid colonies
I’ve been tempted into visiting some beautiful sites recently – mostly Wildlife Trust sites from the excellent NatureFinder App. Many of these sites have some exciting species which you…

Source: 30 Days Wild – Day 17

Day 18 – Damselflies in the Garden Pond
A pond is certainly one of the best ways to encourage wildlife into your garden. I spent a while watching ours today – the constant coming and going of honey bees is one of the most interesti…

Source: 30 Days Wild – Day 18

Day 19 – Contributing to #Wildflowerhour
I would urge everybody who has an interest in botany to get involved with the #wildflowerhour on a Sunday evening between 8 and 9pm – it’s a great opportunity to share your sightings an…

Source: 30 Days Wild – Day 19

Day 20 – Cygnets along the Grantham Canal
Sometimes, opportunities to connect with nature are hard to come by – today was a busy day with meetings, lots of office work and a few days of overnight surveys to prepare for when I got hom…

Source: 30 Days Wild – Day 20

Day 21 – A visit to Shadowbrook Meadows
Plenty of opportunities to connect with nature today – I spent a day out tree climbing inspecting potential features for roosting bats. We didn’t find any bats but a treecreeper nest wi…

Source: 30 Days Wild – Day 21

30 Days Wild – Week 2

For the last month, all through June, I’ve been taking part in #30dayswild. Now that June has come to an end, I am looking back on the activities which kept me feeling connected to nature through the month. The following post summarises Week 2 – feel free to click through the links to read more about any of these activities!

Weeks 3-4 summaries will follow!

Day 8 – Invertebrates and helleborines

I write this post from the shelter of the car as the rain hammers down outside – fingers crossed it passes in time for tonight’s bat survey! I was lucky enough to spend a good portion o…

Source: 30 Days Wild – Day 8

Day 9 – Insects on hogweed

Today began with a bat survey, where there was little to be seen in the way of bats activity but plenty of swallows who started chirping away a good 90 minutes before sunrise and taking to the wing…

Source: 30 Days Wild – Day 9

Day 10 – Wildflowers along the Grantham Canal

I left early this morning to give me chance to walk along the Grantham Canal before work – I love the stretch between Grantham and Harlaxton which runs in a cutting, the habitat shifting from…

Source: 30 Days Wild – Day 10

Day 11 – Painted Lady Butterfly

We took a walk out around home this afternoon and spotted this very tattered painted lady butterfly feeding on the hogweed flowers. It had lost chunks from its wings and was far from a pristine spe…

Source: 30 Days Wild – Day 11

Day 12 – Urban Botany

I think one of the single best things about botany is the ability to enjoy it just about anywhere. As Sunday was so overcast and rainy, I decided to head off to the Depot Climbing Centre in Notting…

Source: 30 Days Wild – Day 12

Day 13 – Orchids

Day 13 of 30 Days Wild is pretty grim and overcast here in the midlands, but don’t let that put you off getting out and about! The rain awakens so many scents from the earth and vegetation th…

Source: 30 Days Wild – Day 13

Day 14 – Moorhens along the River Wytham

A dawn bat survey started the day, followed by a morning in the office so my attention was starting to flag a little by lunchtime. Luckily, our office is only 5 minutes walk from the River Witham w…

Source: 30 Days Wild – Day 14

30 Days Wild – Week 1

For the last month, all through June, I’ve been taking part in #30dayswild. Now that June has come to an end, I am looking back on the activities which kept me feeling connected to nature through the month. The following post summarises Week 1 – feel free to click through the links to read more about any of these activities!

Weeks 2-4 summaries will follow!

Day 1 – Bat Survey

I started Day 1 of 30 Days Wild at 2:30am when I set a very early alarm to carry out a bat survey. Despite the murky conditions, the night had been damp but without rain, and the dawn temperature o…

Source: 30 Days Wild – Day 1

Day 2 – Meeting a Mayfly

The arrival of the mayflies – those famously short-lived river dwellers – is one of the most dramatic events in early summer. Their appearance is of interest to many more species than j…

Source: 30 Days Wild – Day 2

Day 3 – Common Blue Butterflies
I called in at a Warwickshire Wildlife Trust site on my way home from site survey to see whether the butterfly orchids were yet in flower. I found several spikes where the first flowers were openin…

Source: 30 Days Wild – Day 3

Day 4 – Wildflowers in the Garden
It is often said that a weed is simply a flower in the wrong place. I would consider that any flower which adds life and colour to a drab lawn has found it’s right place, and so I went out in…

Source: 30 Days Wild – Day 4

Day 5 – Sunset in a Wildflower Meadow
For Day 5 of 30 Days Wild, I walked out to a local National Nature REserve (NNR) called Muston Meadows to watch the sun go down. As I spend much of the summer doing bat surveys, I do get to see my …

Source: 30 Days Wild – Day 5

 Day 6 – Recording a Cuckoo Bee on iRecord
The blue skies and sunshine first thing this morning made a walk around the garden a must-do before heading into work. I spotted a bumblebee on one of the ornamental garden shrubs which looked rath…

Source: 30 Days Wild – Day 6

Day 7 – Orange -tip Butterflies along the Viking Way
Taking the time to watch nature, rather than simply notice it and keep on walking, is an immensely rewarding experience. There is much information available on so many species, but sometimes it is …

Source: 30 Days Wild – Day 7

Red mason bees

Red mason bees are solitary bees which are commonly found in gardens and urban areas. Many people will have seen the bee hotels which you can buy now from many garden centres and similar locations which are perfectly designed to create a nest site for this species.

There are several species of mason bee in the UK but the red mason – Osmia rufa – is the most common. They are prolific pollinators – estimated to be 120-200x more efficient than the honey bee which makes them a real benefit to any garden, especially those with fruit trees whose flowering period coincides well with the time that these bees are on the wing.

Red mason bees naturally nest in hollow plant stems or holes in cliffs. They also make use of the crumbling mortar of old buildings but their needs can be easily accommodated in the hollow tubes which are the common constituents of bee hotels. After mating, the female bees lay their eggs in the nesting tubes. Each egg is laid and provisioned with pollen and nectar for the young to eat when it hatches. After each egg is laid, a mud-wall is created between it and the next cell which she lays to that the tube, when complete, is a series of individual nest cells. Think a packet of rolo’s where the wrapper is the tube, the chocolate is the mud partition and the caramel inside is the egg, nectar and pollen!

In order to build these cells, the mason bees need to gather mud from a source close to the nest. I found such a ‘mud mine’ down by the banks of the River Witham in Grantham. Close to the waters edge, where the mud is damp, there were small holes which were visited by several bees at the same time, all intent on extracting mud. They scrape this from the surface, roll it into a ball and carry it back to their nest in their mandibles. They seem very faithful to a good location – some of the bees were scraping the mud from the banks on their own, but many used the same spot which had clearly been excavated by several bees over many trips.

Red mason bees are on the wing from around March until June so keep an eye out for them in your back garden and, if you can, provide them with their own nesting site in the form of a bee hotel. If there is no mud source nearby, you can help them out with a tray of damp soil which they will use to line their cells. Your payment will be the services of a highly efficient garden pollinator!

Starling Murmurations

Each winter for the last few years, there have been starling murmurations over Grantham and this year is no exception! I saw them gathering on a pylon in the fields beside Harlaxton as I drove along the A607 in this evening, and as I drove past they all rose en mass and began to flock over the western tip of Grantham. I parked up for a few moments to watch this incredible spectacle of aerial gymnastics.

There are several theories as to why starlings flock together like this and treat us to such a display. They gather just before roosting, which they do communally, and so you see smaller flocks gradually join the largest flock so that the numbers grow and grow before they drop down to the trees and shrubs where they spend the night communally. This grouping together may allow them to exchange information on good feeding spots, or just help them to gather with the rest of the local starlings to maximise the warmth which multiple bodies brings on cold winter nights.

The birds move in unison, twisting and turning in shapes a little like those you’d see in a lava lamp, and this behaviour increases in speed and complexity if there is a predator about. This is believed to be another of the reasons for the murmuration behaviour. Safety in numbers is an instinctive behaviour for many species – including birds, fish and mammals – and it works on the basis that if you are in a large crowd, there are many targets beside yourself which makes it unlikely that a predator will get you individually. The dynamic flight patterns of the murmuration adds a further element of safety by confusing the predator as the flock bends, twists and turns as one.

Starlings are a common sight, but they are actually a red list species. Each bird in the UK is given a colour-coded assessment based on the current status of the species. This works on the traffic light system – green indicates least conservation concern whilst red indicates the highest conservation priority. Starlings are on the red list because, despite these large winter flocks appearing impressive, long-term monitoring by the British Trust for Ornithology shows that starling numbers have fallen to just 1/3 of their population in the mid-1970’s. If this decline were to continue along the current trend, then it would be only a short time before starlings were all but extinct.

The flocks will begin to disperse as starlings pair up and establish nests, so take the opportunity to watch this natural phenomena whilst you have the chance! The hour before sunset is the best time to get out and look for them, and they are currently focused on the western tip of Grantham, sometimes moving over the centre earlier in the evening.

Hazel flowers

The arrival of hazel flowers is one of my favourite sights of spring – in amongst the bare hedgerows, there is something magical about finding a hazel heavy with catkins, as though somebody had been out and hung decorations upon a bare tree in the middle of nowhere.

A tiny female hazel flower in the foreground with the male hazel catkins - an inflorescence containing an average of 240 individual flowers - in the background.
A tiny female hazel flower in the foreground with the male hazel catkins – an inflorescence containing an average of 240 individual flowers – in the background.

The hazel has both male and female flowers on each shrub, and the two flowers are quite different. The male flowers are gathered within the long, breeze-blown catkins and these are by far the most prominent. Each catkin is made up of many individual flowers – these are the small green/yellow male flowers which produce the pollen. There are around 240 male flowers in each catkin and they form during the previous summer so that they are ready to open in the dead of winter and flower through the spring.

The hazel is wind pollinated and the pollen from the catkins blows to reach the female flowers which you would never spot unless you looked carefully – they are tiny individual flowers, visible only as red styles protruding from a green bud-like structure on the same branches as the male flowers.

A female hazel flower - the tiny red styles can be seen protruding from the green bud-like structure on the branch. The styles are each just a few milimetres long so you need to look closely to spot them amongst the catkins!
A female hazel flower – the tiny red styles can be seen protruding from the green bud-like structure on the branch. The styles are each just a few milimetres long so you need to look closely to spot them amongst the catkins!

Hazels typically begin flowering in January and will go on into April, although there were open flowers in December this winter. Once pollinated in the springtime, the female flowers set to work producing the hazelnuts which ripen in the autumn.

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A hazel nut – the eventual result of the pollination of the tiny female flowers with pollen from the male catkins. This photo taken at the end of August before the nuts are yet fully ripe.

Hazel flowers are an important source of pollen for bees, especially those individuals which have overwintered and emerge early when there is little alternative pollen available. Bees collect pollen in medium sized pellets as it is a source of fats and proteins. This is distinct from their need for nectar which is a sugary food source to provide energy and allow production of honey.

A close-up shot of the many male flowers which each make up a hazel catkin. It is these flowers which produce the pollen gathered by bees in the early springtime.
A close-up shot of the many male flowers which each make up a hazel catkin. It is these flowers which produce the pollen gathered by bees in the early springtime.

Hazels are wind pollinated and do not therefore require bees for pollination, although it is noticeable that the female styles are pigmented which may indicate an attractive function. A paper by Pietrowska mentions that the bracts of hazel are adapted for pollen retention. This means that the pollen collects when it leaves the male flowers rather than scattering immediately to the wind – this benefits wind dispersal but also facilitates the collection of pollen by bees. Perhaps the red pigmentation of the yellow flowers is a trick to entice bees  into making the occasional visit to a red female flower, in the hope that nectar may be available, and therefore supplementing the primary wind pollination strategy?

A hazel in the Cotswolds in full flower in January 2015.
A hazel in full flower in January 2015.

New Year Plant Hunt

Each year, the Botanical Society of the British Isles (BSBI) run a New Year’s Plant Hunt where they invite people to record as many species in flower as they can in the New Year – between 1st and 4th January.

After a few days away, and four plant hunts down, I decided to cheer up the first day back to work by carrying out a fifth and final Plant Hunt on the 4th of January, this time on home turf. Previous hunts had been in Exeter, Tyntesfield National Trust, Bristol City Centre and rather closer to home, in Stonesby Quarry and Branston just over the border in Leicestershire.

I started in the dark so the first few photographs are interesting examples of headtorch botany, but the sun steadily rose and the images soon lit themselves. I walked from Harlaxton village to the A1 along a stretch of the Grantham Canal, and then into the centre of town. Having stopped the clock for a morning at work, I headed back out at lunchtime to close out the three hours allowed for a search by heading up to the Hills and Hollows at the back of the town. The whole route was around 5.5 miles and took a little under 3 hours to complete.

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Green alkanet – Pentaglottis sempervirens – by headtorch

I counted up a total of 44 species on this hunt – the most of any of the individual five hunts undertaken which perhaps shows the benifit of walking on familiar ground! The full list and a montage of all the species is provided at the end of this post but I’ll focus now on a few examples of the kinds of flowers which I encountered and the trends which seemed to appear across four days of hunting for flowers in different habitats and counties.

One of the most fruitful locations seems to be cracks, crevices, edges and other overlooked places in built-up areas. Think of those splashes of green at the side of pavements, at the bottoms of walls and fences, or the edges of front gardens. Survival in locations such as these often means a quick turnaround from seed germination, to flowering, to setting seed before the opportunity vanishes. In this way, the species is maintained wherever niches arise, and persist with a constantly shifting distribution map. Such species encountered in this hunt include petty spurge, shepherd’s purse and annual meadow grass.

Then there are those species which are flowering precisely when they intended to. Gorse typically begins flowering on the Hills and Hollows to the east of Grantham in December and continues through into the summer although flowers can really be found at any time of the year. This gives rise to the saying ‘when gorse is out of flower, kissing is out of fashion’. Winter heliotrope is another species which is often found flowering over Christmas and into the new year – there is a colony of this growing beside the River Witham, right in the centre of town. Naturalised species can also be counted in the New Year Plant Hunt – these are non-native species which are growing wild without intervention Periwinkle is a brightly-coloured example of a winter-flowering naturalised species which was growing towards the Hills and Hollows.

Next are a bunch of slightly early spring species. These are those which are preparing to flower soon but have apparently been tricked into doing so a little earlier than usual by the clement conditions. Examples include shrubs – such as hazel, blackthorn, holly and dogwood – as well as some spring flowers such as primrose and lesser celandine. Another naturalised species on the list was wood spurge, a healthy self-set colony of which was flowering away at the base of a hedge towards the east of the town. These species typically flower between February and May so a January flowering is not excessively early.

Another common theme I have spotted is the propensity for species to flower where the vegetation has been cut recently. This can be easily visualised where the daisies and dandelions still brighten up most lawns. Along the Grantham Canal, it was noticable that hogweed and cow parsley both flower just to the sides of the towpath where there was a late-summer/early-autumn cut but are absent further out where the sward escaped the blades. Perhaps this works a little like the Chelsea Chop technique which delays and extends the flowering period, but cutting is also a form of stress to the plants, and this can encourage them to flower and set seed as a survival response.

Finally there are the long-season species – these are flowers which naturally flower late into the year. Examples include wood avens, red and white campion, white deadnettle, field speedwell and yarrow all of which were recorded flowering along the Grantham Canal towpath. The ever-delightful ivy-leaved toadflax also falls into this category flowering from May right through into the early winter – this delicate little flower grows in cracks and crevices in many of the walls throughout Grantham. The persistence of these species, especially considering there has been little frost to speak of so far this year, is broadly in-keeping with their general phenology.

It’s been a good few days and a great excuse to get out and find some wildlife in the depths (although clearly not the dead) of winter. I found a total of 64 different species across five hunts in four counties! Many thanks to BSBI for organising this – the deadline for the results is the 8th January and I’m looking forward to seeing the results and analysis which will follow their collation of records from around the country. From the conversations on twitter, it appears that many people have got involved this year. If you want to get involved next year, check out the BSBI webpage and get recording when New Year’s Day comes around again!

A montage of the photographs of all the species recorded on the Grantham New Year Plant Hunt is provided below, along with the complete species list.

Grantham Large

Daisy (Bellis perennis)
Annual meadow grass (Poa annua)
Lesser celandine (Ranunculus ficaria)
Cock’s foot (Dactylis glomerata)
Winter heliotrope (Petasites fragrans)
Primrose (Primula vulgaris)
Petty spurge (Euphorbia peplus)
Groundsel (Senecio vulgaris)
Ivy-leaved toadflax (Cymbalaria muralis)
Nipplewort (Lapsana communis)
Prickly sow-thistle (Sonchus asper)
Canadian fleabane (Conyza canadensis)
Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)
Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale agg.)
Herb Robert (Geranium robertianum)
Hazel (Corylus avellana)
Hogweed (Heracleum sphondylium)
Ox-eye daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare)
Red campion (Silene dioica)
Periwinkle (Vinca major)
Bramble (Rubus fruticosus agg.)
White dead-nettle (Lamium album)
Oregon grape (Mahonia spp.)
Common ragwort (Senecio jacobaea)
Dove’s foot cranesbill (Geranium mollis)
Common mouseear (Cerastium fontanum)
Perennial sowthistle (Sonchus arvensis)
Common field speedwell (Veronica persica)
Wood avens (Geum urbanum)
Shephard’s purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris)
Green alkanet (Pentaglottis sempervirens)
Red deadnettle (Lamium purpureum)
Feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium)
Pineapple mayweed (Matricaria discoidea)
White campion (Silene latifolia)
Cow parsley (Anthriscus sylvestris)
Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa)
Wall barley (Hordeum murinum)
Holly (Ilex aquifolium)
Wavy bittercress (Cardamine flexuosa)
Wood spurge (Euphorbia amygdaloides)
Gorse (Ulex europaeus)
Dogwood (Cornus sanguinea)
Smooth Hawk’s-beard (Crepis capillaris)