Squamish – Sea to Sky

We’ve just returned from an amazing couple of weeks spent on and around Vancouver Island in British Columbia and I’m still processing all the sights and experiences. Vancouver island is extensive, BC is huge and Canada is just colossal – I’m aware that we only scratched the smallest surface of this stunning destination but I thought I’d share below a few of the highlights from the trip. First stop, Squamish!

This town is nestled between the mountains and the sea and claims the title of ‘the Outdoor Recreation Capital of Canada‘. I can see why… whilst my fingers itched to join the climbers scaling boulders and pitches all around, we had only a few days and there was adventure enough without taking to the vertical!

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A view of the Strawamus Chief, taken at sunset from Smoke Bluffs with Squamish town nestled below

The Strawamus Chief hangs above the town and we were lucky enough to have a perfect view of this iconic mountain from our window. At night you could watch the stars wheel overhead whilst mornings would see the peak revealed or otherwise concealed by rolling clouds which permitted glimpses in silhouette before billowing it back into obscurity.

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Starlapse over the Strawamus Chief

We walked the Chief trail which can take you up to all three consecutive peaks of this enticing prominence. Although time conspired against a view from the peak, the route up from Shannon Falls was spectacular – a combination of natural path and the built elements such as log-steps and boardwalks required to surmount the otherwise impassable. The forest which hugged the base and through which the path ascended was our first real view of the eerily beautiful bryophyte-hung conifers which we were to become familiar with over the next few weeks.

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Shannon Falls etching its way through the deep conifer forests which crowd around it

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A grey second day took us out along the Mamquam river which empties into the Sound at the foot of the town. The salmon runs were just beginning and we walked through the gravel banks amongst saplings and driftwood to watch their backs breaching the ripples as they spawned in the shallows.

These runs bring the eagles in the winter where thousands can be seen taking advantage of the fish – the record count in 1994 was 3,769! Sadly we were a little too early  as they peak in November.

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The humped back of a spawning male pink salmon (Oncorhynchus gorbuska) breaching the water in Mamquam river.

The salmon die after spawning and we saw many dead along the gravel banks, as well as failing and foundering in the river itself. This seemed a sad sight, but the runs of salmon from the oceans to the rivers, and their subsequent demise in freshwater, are a vital ecosystem function in transferring nutrients from one location to the other. The fish are caught or scavanged by a wide variety of species, from bears and eagles to mink, otter, gulls and vultures. This is transferred to the land through droppings, but also manually moved by bears in particular who will take the fish into the forest but often feed only on the most select parts, leaving the rest to be scavanged or simply to break down and decompose. One study in south-eastern Alaska found that up to 25% of the nitrogen in the foliage of trees was derived from spawning salmon which makes this miraculous migration a key component of the forest ecosystem.

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One of the many salmon carcasses which contribute to a vital upstream flow of nutrients

Our stay backed onto Smoke Bluffs and we took a couple of walks in the trails which weave through this forest. With huge boulders scattered amongst the conifers, and no shortage of mountain bikers willing to throw themselves down them, the trails were somewhat more challenging than the average stroll through the woods but all the more exciting for it. Whilst the evidence of others was apparent, we found ourselves alone; the sense of stillness and quiet in those woods was unlike everything I’ve ever experienced, shielded by high canopies above with all sounds softened by the sea of ferns which lapped the edges of the trail. Down low too were some beautiful lichen forests, emulating their larger neighbours in miniature.

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Lichens growing within a bed of moss upon the rocks in Smoke Bluff park

One our last day, before heading on to Horseshoe Bay to catch the ferry across to Nanaimo, we caught the Sea to Sky Gondola for a bird’s eye view of the landscape. Sea to Sky is the name of the route and the region, and it’s not hard to see why – the view from the 885m high peak out across Howe Sound shows what a stunning combination of the elements this place is!

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The view out over Howe Sound from the top of the Sea to Sky Gondola

At the summit station were creatures which I first thought to be butterflies, but on closer inspection realised were grasshoppers. I think these are Trimerotropis species and their sustained bouts of flight were unlike any I have seen our UK species do. These noisy ascents would last 10 seconds or more and had the air of a display about them – this is something which females of the genus are known to do when receptive to mating. Whilst conspicuous on the wing, they were perfectly camouflaged against the rocks, disappearing if you took your eye off them only to reappear precisely where you left them!

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Trimerotropis grasshopper on the rocks at the Sea to Sky summit

Next stop – Vancouver Island!

 

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Vegetation Layers in an English Woodland

The different layers within a woodland are one of those classic illustrations from ecology textbooks – usually a cartoon graphic showing how the structure changes as you move from the ground up to the canopy. The distinctions are indicative – there is often plenty of overlap between the layers – but these are a useful way of thinking about the woodland in terms of its ecological function beyond what simply meets the eye. Helping you to see the wood for the trees, if you will!

We undertake tree climb and inspect surveys for bats in a variety of settings – from individual trees in gardens to well-spaced parklands and dense woodlands. Each of these gives a different insight into vertical variation but a recent climb in an oak and ash woodland gave a nice opportunity to illustrate how this changes in a typical ancient woodland habitat.

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Photographs taken at 2m (bottom), 6m (middle) and 12m (top) in an English oak and ash woodland to illustrate the variation in spatial structure.

The number of ‘layers’ and their distinctions vary between sources and across countries – I’ve seen three defined layers, nine defined layers and every number in between delineated in various graphics. I’m going to keep this simple and focus on the three broad categories which are shown in these photos:

Field Layer – taken at 2m height

Ground Layer
Photograph taken at 2m showing the field or ground layer in an English oak and ash woodland

 

This photograph encapsulates what could be considered the field layer, the ground layer or the forest floor depending on which divisions you use. Broadly, this is the view from the ground – the most apparent vista for most visitors to the woodlands but the scene varies greatly as the year progresses. In secondary woodland or more botanically diminished sites, this can be a mass of ruderals such as nettles, cow parsley and bramble whilst some plantation woodlands can be head-high in bracken. In ancient woodland – such as this – springtime sees a flush of ancient woodland species which time their flowering early in the season before the canopy closes overhead. As May arrives and the trees and shrubs come into leaf, the main event on the forest floor is already coming to an end. Some species flourish later in the season but in September, the vegetation has largely died back often leaving a relatively bare floor. The dominant vegetation remaining is therefore the trunks of the trees and the shrubs which rise above the field layer to leaf and flower higher.

Scrub Layer – taken at 6m height

Shrub Layer
Photograph taken at 6m showing the hazel-dominated shrub layer in an English oak and ash woodland

This could be described as the under-canopy, the scrub layer, the shrub layer or the under-storey layer. This is the level at which the shrubs flourish – those smaller woody species which often include hawthorn, blackthorn, hazel, holly, dogwood and elder, amongst others. These shrubs can often form such a dense canopy that the view to the treetops above can be quite obscured – something of an issue when you’re searching for bat roosts! In this instance, hazel and hawthorn dominate and as the photograph shows, they form a dense and highly cluttered environment some 6m above the ground.

Canopy Layer – taken at 12m height

Canopy Layer
Photograph taken at 12m showing the space between the shrub layer and the woodland canopy in an English oak and ash woodland

This is up at the top of the trees, where the taller trees branch and close their canopies to claim first use of the sunlight available. I’m not right in the canopy in this photograph – the trees did not require us to climb to the peaks – but this nicely illustrates the shrub layer below with the high canopy of the oak and ash above. In some forests, the species composition includes a sub-canopy of smaller trees – such as rowan, silver birch and field maple – which form a layer between the lower shrubs and the taller climax species. This photograph nicely illustrates how much of a space can open up between distinct layers within the higher reaches of the forest structure.

Why does it matter?

An appreciation of how the character and conditions of a woodland change on a vertical plane are just as important, although a little harder to appreciate, than the variation on the ground. The illustrations above are for just one section of just one woodland and each type of species composition but they help to give a visual idea of how this works.

One example of how this type of variation is important is when considering how bats might use a habitat. Different species of bat have different hunting characteristics and habitat preferences, and this often relates to how open or cluttered a habitat is. Species such as brown long-eared are highly maneuverable and will glean insects from leaves so a reasonably cluttered woodland environment suits them perfectly. At the other end of the spectrum, a noctule hawks in open space, often flying over fields and catching its prey on the wing. Species such as pipistrelle are typically characterised as edge specialists which forage along woodland edges, hedgerows and other similar environments.

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Pipistrelle bats are typically described as ‘edge’ species which forage along the edges of vertical features, such as a woodland edge

The field layer of the woodland looks ideal for a species such as brown long-eared but you might think that it would be too cluttered and enclosed for other species. However an insight into the structure above the shrub layer reveals a mosaic of open space and leaf cover which provides perfect ‘edge’ habitat for a hunting pipistrelle, and the voids between the trees would be perfectly navigable for a noctule in search of a roost. This was the subject of a talk by Ian Davidson-Watts at a recent BCT Bats and Woodland conference which you can read more about in this blog post here.

If you’re looking for tree climb and inspect surveys for bats, do check out this page for further details!

 

Heather Hanami anyone?

One of the cultural aspects I love about Japan is the observation and celebration of the seasons. This is manifested perhaps most strongly in the Hanami – flower viewing.

In the springtime, the cherries across the country put on spectacular displays and people flock for celebrations and selfies. There is a blossom forecast on the weather report to allow people to plan their visits; people gather with friends and families to have picnics and parties under the trees in the parks; and there are special blossom trains to take you on scenic journeys through the cherry orchards.

Whilst cherries are popular as street and city trees in the UK, and are occasionally planted in such numbers as to be worth of a pilgrimage, I wonder whether our most appropriate focus for Hanami might be heather viewing.

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Many of our upland areas are transformed in August and September as heath and moorland are washed purple with the flowering of heather. The effect is truly spectacular and well worthy of a pilgrimage one sunny late-summer day. Putting aside the question of ‘naturalness’, and certainly the practises which are predominantly responsible for the habitat, the flowering of the heather represents an easily accessible way for everybody to appreciate nature and reconnect with the shifting of the seasons.

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Before the autumn leaves turn – a phenomena equally enjoyed by the Japanese as momojigari – I’d suggest a sojourn to the uplands to enjoy one of the last great shows of summer while you can!

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If you do take a trip – keep your eyes peeled for the smart little heather colleges bees which time their lifecycle around the flowering of this species. Find out more about them in my blog post here!

30 Days Wild 2017

It’s the 1st of July and that means that the Wildlife Trust’s annual month-long challenge of #30dayswild is over for another year.

Last year, I wrote a blog every day for #30dayswild but this year I’ve had to settle for a tweet – so this is my retrospective of highlights from June 2017.

I am incredibly lucky to have a job which, along with writing reports and assessments, also gets me out in the wild to undertake surveys. Despite this, here are my top tips for engaging with wildlife on a day to day basis.

#1 Get out every day!

This might seem like an obvious one, but there”s nearly always time to connect with nature if you make the space. If I am in the office for a day, I always get out at lunchtime, rain or shine, for some fresh air and exercise. Sometimes I’ll have a target in mind – visiting the wool carder bees down in the Sensory Garden in town for example. Other times I’ll just wander, but never yet have I returned without encountering something unexpected – whether this is a grasshopper landing on my hand or finding a new orchid colony in the wind and rain. If you’re receptive to the wildlife around you, there will be something to intrigue you! The following photographs are all lunchtime encounters:

#2 Keep your eyes peeled for surprises

When I’m out and about on surveys, we had particular targets in mind. One day we might be surveying for newts, other times we’ll be carrying out habitat surveys or scoping for suitable bat roosting trees. But the opportunity to be out and about provides ample opportunity to witness something new – here are a few from surveys during June:

 

 

 

#3 Spend time in your garden

Spending a day out in the garden at a weekend allows an insight into all the activity and life which occurs every day when I’m out at work. There’s something special about wildlife in your garden – especially if they are attracted by, or using, things which you have provided for them – be this native wildflowers for the bees; the pond for damselflies; or the log pile for woodlouse spiders and frogs.

I am aware that I’m lucky to have a garden and some people do not have this space – but the principle still applies to a local park or even a patch of grassland at the road verge. I always feel a stronger connection with wildlife close to home, which you don’t need a special trip to see.

 

 

#4 Take the time to visit somewhere special

Despite stating that wildlife close to home feels particularly special in #3 above, that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t take the opportunity to explore somewhere new and exciting when you can. The Wildlife Trust manage some incredibly diverse and exciting reserves around the country, and the vast majority are free to explore.

I love the Nature Finder App which the Trust have produced – this maps their reserves and will show you which ones are close to you, along with details of what you might find there. As I travel around a fair bit, there are often opportunities to call by somewhere new and see something unique. When you’re planning a long journey, I would urge you to check it out and find somewhere magical to stop off on the way. Or use it simply to find somewhere new closer to home.

These are all opportunistic stop-offs when I was driving close by in June:

 

 

#5 It doesn’t hurt to have a holiday booked in the middle of #30dayswild!

We had an amazing week away in the Dolomites at the beginning of June and spent the time walking the mountains and valleys and experiencing some amazing flora. If you feel like perusing the photographs, you can read more in my blog post here. Otherwise, here are a few #30dayswild highlights!

 

 

 

 

 

#6 Keep it going!

Why stop at #30dayswild – keep up the habit and enjoy wildlife all year round – you can tweet #365dayswild to share your experiences and don’t forget the Wildlife Trusts who have masterminded this campaign – they do some excellent work preserving some of our most precious sites but they need your support!

  1. Find your local Wildlife Trust here.
  2. Get the Naturefinder app here.
  3. And keep up to date on the latest news from the WIldlife Trusts here!

Wildflowers of the Dolomites

This blog post steps outside of my usual UK sphere and across to Europe to share some photographs from our holiday in the Dolomites. We spent 6 fantastic days in the Val Gardena and mid-June was the perfect time  for exploring the mountains and valleys at the beginning of the real flush of summer flowers.

We stayed in Ortesei – a popular skiing resort in the winter which lent its infrastructure to summer explorers such as us. Two cablecars and a funicular railway would take you up to 2,500m to alpine meadows to the south of the town, pine forests to the north and the scree-slopes below ancient elevated reefs to the west. With the help of these we walked over 100km of trails during out time there and passed through a wide range of habitat with the variety of flora to match.

This was a fascinating experience for me as an ecologist. Firstly, it was an opportunity to see a number of species which I would dearly love to see in the UK, from the much-celebrated lady’s slipper orchid to the delicate lesser butterfly orchid. I also saw a wide range of species I would recognise in the UK only as a garden ornamentals, such as the daphne and orange lilies. Then there were a whole host of species which could be identified to genus through their correspondence with familiar UK species, but which I had never encountered before such as the alpine colt’s foot and the alpine pasque flower. From these examples a naming system occured to me, similar to the way this landlocked ecologist deals with new coastal species. Whereas the prefix ‘sea…’ works with familiar-but-different‘s beside the coast (think sea mayweed, sea holly, sea campion), so the prefix ‘alpine’ often seems to work in the Dolomites! Finally there were utter unknowns which were quite unlike anything I had seen before – spotted gentian and box-leaved milkwort to name but two!

I worked through my charity-shop copy of ‘Mountain Flowers of Europe’, googled latin names of the right genus from the Plant Life of the Dolomites and refered to this excellent blog post. For the last few, I appealed to twitter and as usual for the botanical community there, some incredibly generous and helpful people offered identifications. However this slightly scattershot approach to ID has led to a number of ‘possibly’ and ‘probably’ ID’s whilst others might quite simply be wrong. If you spot anything in the following collection of photographs which looks awry, I would welcome any corrections or confirmations!

I would highly recommend this region, and Ortesei in particular, as an excellent spot for the extensive trails, the beautiful wildflowers and the predictably enjoyable food and drink. And that’s to say nothing of the marmots!

Alternatively, for an armchair whirl through some of the flora which these mountains have to offer, scroll on!

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Dark columbine – Aquilegia atrata
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Trumpet gentian – Gentiana acualis
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Lady’s slipper orchid – Cypripedium calceolus
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Lesser butterfly orchid – Platanthera bifolia
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Lesser butterfly orchid – Platanthera bifolia
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Yellow foxglove – Digitalis sp. – perhaps D.micrantha
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Foxglove – Digitalis sp. – probably D. lutea or D. ambigua
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Orange lily – Lilium bulbiferum
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Woundwort – probably Stachys recta
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Unidentified saxifrage – possibly Saxifraga hostii.
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Lupin – Lupinus sp.
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Rampion – probably Phyteuma spicata, P. scheuchzeri or P. betonicifolium
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Spotted gentian – Gentiana punctata
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Spotted gentian – Gentiana punctata
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Alpine rhododendron – Rhododendron ferrugineum
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Gentian – possible spring gentian – Gentiana verna
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Violet – Viola sp.
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Daisy-leaved speedwell – Veronica bellidoides
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Butterwort – Pinguicula leptoceras
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Bird’s nest orchid – Neottia nidus-avis
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Goat’s beard – Aruncus dioicus

 

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False lily-of-the-vally – Maianthemum bifolium
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St Bernard’s-lily – Anthericum ramosum
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Meadow clary – Salvia pratensis
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Campanula – Campanula sp.
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Rock soapwort – Saponaria ocymoides
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Solomon’s seal – Polygonatum sp
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Cow wheat – perhaps Melampyrum sylvaticum
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Meadow clary – Salvia pratensis
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Thistle – probably Cirsium erisithales
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Orchid – Dacylorhiza sp.

 

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Herb paris – Paris quadrifolia
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Rock rose – possibly Helianthemum alpestre
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Alpine clematis – Clematis alpina
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Spurge – Euphorbia sp.
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Black vanilla orchid – Nigritella nigra
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Alpine snowbell – Soldanella alpina
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Daphne striata
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Alpine yellow-violet – Viola biflora
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Moss campion – Silene acualis
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Oxlip – Primula elatior
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Crocus – Crocus albiflorus
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Mountain avens – Dryas octopetela
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Trumpet gentian – Gentiana acualis
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Rampion sp. – Phytsuma sp.
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Geranium sp. – possibly G. pratense

 

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Box-leaved milkwort – Polygala chamaebuxus
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Box-leaved milkwort – Polygala chamaebuxus ssp grandiflora
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Sainfoin – probably Onobrychis montana
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Alpine colt’s-foot – Homogyne alpina
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Alpine colt’s-foot – Homogyne alpina
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Heart-leaved globe daisy – Globularia cordifolia
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Heart-leaved globe daisy – Globularia cordifolia
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Mountain everlasting – Antennaria dioica
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Primrose sp.
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Hoary plantain – Plantago media
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Alpine bistort – Polygonum viviparum
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Clover – probably Trifolium montanum
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Catchfly – probably Silene italica
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Hypochaeris uniflora
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Fragrant orchid – Gymnadenia sp.
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Fragrant orchid – Gymnadenia sp.
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Alpine aster – Aster alpinus
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Alpine pasque flower – Pulsatilla alpina
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Trumpet gentian – Gentiana acualis

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Pasque-flower – probably parsley-leaved pasqueflower – Pulsatilla alpina
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Field gentian – Gentianella campestris
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Anemone sp. – possibly A. trifolia
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Anemone sp. – possibly A. trifolia

 

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Meadow rue – Thalictrum aquilegifolium
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Sandwort – probably Moehringia muscosa
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Round-leaved wintergreen – Pyrola rotundifolia
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Round-leaved wintergreen – Pyrola rotundifolia
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Poppy – possibly Papaver alpinum
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Alpine butterwort – Pinguicula alpina

 

Green hairstreaks at Barnack Hills and Holes

On the way back from a site survey in Cambridgeshire, I had the opportunity to call by and take my lunch break in Barnack Hills and Holes in the sunshine. Having seen a photograph posted by Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust the previous day, I knew that green hairstreaks were on the wing so I went off in hunt of these iridescent little jewels!

Green hairstreak (Callophrys rubi) can be hard to track down for a few reasons; firstly, they are wonderfully camouflaged against the leaves – seeing one at a flower can be almost like noticing that one of the leaves is drinking! Secondly, their populations can be small – some colonies are only a few individuals strong and so tracking them down on a large site could be time consuming.

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Spot the hairstreak drinking from the hawthorn flower!
Luckily, after a pleasant half an hour wandering through the cowslips and orchids, I came across several on a hawthorn shrub. It was a windy but sunny afternoon and this hawthorn bush was more sheltered than many others. When in flight, the butterflies reveal the brown uppers of their wings making them easy to spot on the wing – but they always rest with their wings held together and blend beautifully into the greenery.

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Green hairstreak amongst the hawthorn leaves
I watched two males take up sentry posts, settling on hawthorn buds or leaves, poised to leap into action and defend their territory against intruders. Other males were the most targets likely to be chased, along with other insects and butterflies of other species, but they also use this vantage point to spot females on the wing. When resting and waiting, these males tilted their wings towards or away from the sun, micro-managing their temperature with these movements.

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Male green hairstreak poised on a hawthorn bud ready to intercept intruders
Green hairstreaks are widely but locally distributed in the UK – this means there is likely to be a colony somewhere near you but they have particular habitat requirements so you might need to go to just the right place to find them. They occur in a range of habitat types including dry heathlands, grasslands, old railway embankments, woodland and quarries. The key habitat requirement seems to be open grassland with a good scrub component. Adult food plants include trefoils, vetches, hawthorn, gorse and spring flowers such as cowslip and bluebell. The larval food plants are similarly diverse including trefoils, dogwood, vetches, gorse and broom.

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Green hairstreak on a hawthorn flower – one of the favoured food sources for the imago (adult butterfly)
These butterflies are on the wing early in the year – often in April and early May through to early-June or perhaps later in the north. Barnack is a great place to spot them but this site can help you find a location near you!

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Green hairstreak standing guard over his territory on a hawthorn flower

Oxlips at Hayley Wood

Botany is one of those passions you can engage in almost anywhere – this could be spotting dandelions brightening in the lawn, ivy-leaved toadflax scrambling up the wall or whitlow grass offering a tiny bunch of flowers beside the pavement. Sometimes however, a flower requires a pilgrimage and oxlip – Primula elatior – is one of those species.

A rare woodland flower, somewhere between a cowslip and a primrose in appearance, it’s distribution is largely restricted to the point in the country where the counties of Essex, Suffolk and Cambridge meet. Hayley Wood has always been in my head as the destination for this pilgrimage – I can’t for the life of me recall which book which introduced me to the name but it has always stuck.

Situated near Cambridge, Hayley Wood is an ancient woodland, mentioned in the Doomesday book and owned, managed and protected by the Wildlife Trust for Cambridgeshire, Bedfordshire and Northamptonshire since 1962. It plays host to a wide range of ancient woodland species – I spotted dog’s mercury, bluebell, yellow archangel, bugle and lesser celandine to name but a few. I hope to return later in the season to seek a few more of it’s treasures but this day was all about the oxlip.

The day I visited was overcast and perpetually interrupted by April showers, but although a little late for the main event, I was not disappointed…




Singing with Nightingales

My job is much concerned with the facts and figures of ecology and wildlife. We collate lists of plants on a site, or identify the protected species present, or count the populations of newts or reptiles. This allows abundant opportunities to get out of the office and encounter all kinds of habitats and wildlife, but the focus on the factual can miss a whole facet of what the wild means. The Nest Collective’s ‘Singing with Nightingales’ was a perfect opportunity to transcend the cold biology and experience the deeper essence of one of our most charismatic species. So on Easter Sunday, we drove down to Fingringhoe Wick – an Essex Wildlife Trust site on the south Essex coast – calling on the way to pick up some friends. We parked up and followed the handmade signs taking us off through the trees. It was only 6:30pm – hours before sunset – but we already picked out the song of an impatient nightingale trilling and whistling amongst the gorse and willow.

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One of the handmade signs directing us towards the campfire for the evening

Reaching the glade within the trees, Sam Lee – our host for the evening – welcomed us along with the other guests, and we settled around the fire for introductions and drinks before the expert ornithologist Tom Stuart led us on a walk around the hills and hollows of the reserve to introduce us to the soundscape of the dusk chorus. Tom conjured the reserve’s journey from an old gravel workings through stages of succession and management to the diverse habitat we were now walking through, and explained how the Essex WT maintained the mid-stage scrub which is essential for the nightingale.

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The group assembling around the campfire

As the sun sank into obscurity, we returned to the fireside for a delicious vegan curry and carrot cheesecake before Sam broke the fireside chatter with the first of his mesmerising songs. He went on to describe the prominence and place of nightingales in lyrics and folklore, interwoven with song and poetry. Whilst Sam evoked the mythology of these elusive birds with romantic flair, Tom described the biology and behaviour of the species with scientific yet equally mesmerising effect. To focus on the ecology alone misses the cultural and creative importance of these birds which have sung by our firesides for centuries and the Nest Collective weave these two strands perfectly.

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As we approached 11 o’clock, we walked out across the reserve, following in Sam’s footsteps both literally and mechanically; without torches we were taught to walk like foxes, toes first to feel for uneven ground and move with the undulating terrain safely. We had been to the depths of the Sussex forest with Sam and Ezra last year to hear the nightingales, but they had been reluctant to sing. Tonight however, we walked between serenading males, auditioning them until we paused beside a particularly fluent vocalist. We stood in silence, listening to the surreal exotic song of this African visitor, before Sam’s first accompanying note appeared gently in the air as though it were always there. He sang ‘Down by the Tan Yard Side’,  dueting with the nightingale whose notes fell into the pauses between the lines or overlapped and accented them.

The inspiration for these intimate, outdoor gatherings came from the history of musicians playing with nightingales, most notably live on BBC Radio in the early part of the 20th century. Every May from 1924 – when it was the first ever live outside broadcast on the radio – the cellist Beatrice Harrison played with the local nightingales in her back garden in Surrey. This continued until 1942 when the live broadcast picked up the drone of allied bombers flying overhead on their way to the continent. Realising that this would give warning of the impending raid, the BBC pulled the plug and there the tradition died. Until 2014 that is, on the 90th anniversary of this first recording, when Sam and two companions travelled to a secret location to re-enact this event for a live BBC broadcast once more. This sparked the enthusiasm for this tradition, and the Singing with Nightingale events – now at a range of locations around the country – have sprung from this.

With a gentle hum, in resonant and fluent imitation of a cello, Sam sang along with his chosen accompanist, just as the low drone of a Stanstead-bound aircraft broke on the horizon. With the fireside tale of the history still fresh in our memories, this otherwise unwelcome intrusion of the modern world in fact provided a poignant and fortuitous resonance of that final BBC broadcast.

We left this nightingale and walked back towards the cars at 1am – only to be captured by another who was impossible to walk on by so we gathered beneath its willow podium. In the darkness, images come unbidden and the soundscape surrounding us was like seeing beacons being lit as these birds sang in their individual islands and the songs sparked motifs and patterns which were heard and echoed, repeated and elaborated  and embellished by others across the reserve.

The Nest Collective, set up by Sam in 2006, takes music to unusual venues and unique settings, and these events combine history and folklore with ecology and conservation, all bound together through song and poetry and good fireside company. This was our second year experiencing this magical night, and I very much hope it won’t be our last. You can find out more about the series at the Nest Collective’s website here, or get a taste of the evening in this 90th Anniversary broadcast on BBC Radio 4.

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Easegill Caves Hibernation Surveys

The Cumbria Bat Group kindly let me come along on a hibernation survey at Easegill Caves in January 2017. We hiked up to Upper and Lower Kirk Caves to see what we could find, then descended using ropes and caving ladders into Link Pot to explore an underground cave network some 15m down.

We found good numbers of myotis species including Daubenton’s, Natterer’s and whiskered/Brandt’s/Alcathoe – these last three are grouped as it’s very difficult to distinguish these three without disturbing the bats. We also found a small number of brown long-eared bats hibernating too.

It’s important to note that disturbing hibernating bats is illegal without a licence from Natural England – this survey was led and supervised by licenced bat workers who ensured that disturbance was kept to a minimum whilst allowing the bats to be identified and counted. If you find a bat in roosting you should take great care not to disturb it especially during the winter as they may rouse from torpor at an inappropriate time and be unable to then survive the winter. If you do find a roosting bat – let your local Bat Group know! More details at the bottom…

The video below shows a summary of the seven hours we spent out in the hills, in just under three minutes!

The following photographs show a few of the hibernating bats we identified on the surveys.

It’s not only bats we found in the caves – plenty of cave spiders and hibernating moths too including herald and tissue moths.

If you would like to get more involved with your local bat group and help out on hibernation surveys such as these, you can find your nearest here. Many thanks to the South Cumbria Bat Group, and Rich Flight in particular, for a great opportunity to explore the caves and see plenty of roosting bats!

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The Grantham Oak

The Oak of Belton Lane – referred to in some places as the Grantham Oak – is perhaps the most surprising and impressive tree in town. The oak stands on the eastern side of Belton Lane, to the north of the town of Grantham, beside a pedestrian crossing and surrounded by a crescent of residential housing. This is not the typical location for a tree which is likely to be over 500 years old!

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The Grantham Oak, dominating the scene with the pedestrian crossing across Belton Lane to one side, and residential housing to the other

The Grantham Oak – a pedunculate or English Oak (Quercus robur) – has a girth of 7.02m when measured at 1.5m above the ground. To give a rough visualisation of this – it would take over four adults reaching finger-tip to finger-tip to hug this tree. Using this measurement of girth, we can estimate the age of this tree – although this is not an exact science, and is subject to speculation over the early growing conditions of the tree and the stresses or privileges it might have endured or enjoyed over the years.Using the methodology produced by John White – the tree may be 530 – 560 years old, indicating a possible planting date around the 1450’s. To put this in context – this is around the time of the War of the Roses; the founding on the Inca dynasty; and when Joan of Arc was burnt at the stake.

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Sunday morning walkers passing the Grantham Oak

The tree is a pollard – this means that in the distant past, it was cut above the height at which animals can graze. This was generally done to faciliate sustainable harvest of a tree either to provide fodder for animals or for wood timber. Retaining the base of the tree but continually taking new growth allows it to be harvested regularly without killing the tree. Indeed, one result of pollarding trees is that they often live for much longer than non-pollarded specimens.

A ‘wolf tree‘ is one which is older and larger than those around it – it often has a shape and structure which seems unaffected by external influences such as shading or competition, whilst it’s establishment means the younger trees grow and develop in response to it. I often see this in woodlands – especially where an old oak is situated towards the edge of a more recent forestry plantation – but the Grantham Oak is an example of a ‘wolf tree’ in a residential setting – the houses which line Belton Road were built to arch in a crescent surrounding this magnificent tree at its centre. This tree is still valued by many who live close or drive past it – it was nominated in the hunt for the UK’s 2014 Tree of the Year competition.

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The Grantham Oak with the crescent of houses set back from the canopy

The map below illustrates the current location of the tree – set at the edge of residential development, a little way offset from the green corridor along the River Witham which passes through the town to the west.

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The OS map below shows the current location of the tree in a changed environment – extensive residential development now covers its previously countryside landscape.

The housing around this tree was only established in the 20th century and inspection of older maps before this date indicate that in 1905, the land around Belton Lane was agricultural countryside.

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This map from 1905 positions the tree opposite entrance road to Harrowby Mill. Beyond the Oak would have been open fields to the east and west in sharp comparison to the residential housing which populates this site now.

The Harrowby Mill, still present but converted to residential use, lies opposite this tree on the west of Belton Lane and this can be seen as the only marked development in close proximity to the tree back in 1835. Although this was almost 200 years ago, even then the Grantham Oak would have been an impressive specimen of some 300 years old and would have stood dominantly across the road as workers left the mill.

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An extract of a map from 1835 showing the approximate location of the tree with the red dot. The road on which the tree is situated – now Belton Lane – was already in existence along with the Harrowby Mill adjacent to it.

This is registered as Tree 2560 on the Woodland Trust Ancient Tree Register – a link to the tree’s individual page can be found here. The tree is included in the ‘40 Special Trees of Lincolnshire40 Special Trees of Lincolnshire‘ book produced by the Lincolnshire Tree Awareness Group (TAG) under the title ‘The Grantham Oak’. The text describing this tree states that it was originally enclosed by Belton Hall Park although a contact at Belton said that the land at Belton Lane was never within parkland indicating it may never have been a ‘parkland’ tree.

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The incongruous yet magnificent Grantham Oak

I have done my best to piece together a little history and information on this tree, but I would love for this to be just the beginning. If you have any information, photographs or stories relating to this tree, please get in touch with me or leave a comment below and I can update the post to grow the story around this magnificent resident of Grantham.

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The Grantham Oak in November 2016 – just beginning to take on the tones of Autumn

For a similar post on one of Grantham’s impressive trees, take a look at this post on the copper beech on the high street!