Teetering on the brim of spring

The recent snow and ice has melted revealing a drab field layer of razed and decaying undergrowth.  Despite the same seasonal hardships some neighbouring plants are now teetering on the brim of spring  pushing their new infant green shoots upwards towards the growing hours of daylight.  Indeed, this year looking higher up the vertical vegetation structure into the understorey and shrub layer of our hedgerows and woodlands there is a particular abundance of hazel flowers.  These catkins which formed unnoticed during the autumn and winter are the male flowers and are commonly known as lamb’s tails (see photo attached).  Hazel is wind pollinated and does not rely on insects to do this.  Their pollen will drift in the air until resting on a female flower.  These flowers are minute and easily overlooked and apart from a tiny red vase shaped tuft look just like another small bud along the bare narrow stem (see photo attached).  Large amounts of pollen are produced ensuring the hazel nuts of autumn are formed providing a feast for squirrels and small mammals such as wood mice.  Also, numerous larva of various moths and other insects feed on the foliage making the hazel a most valuable wildlife plant.

Male flowers on hazel at Wrenthorpe Park

Male flowers on hazel at Wrenthorpe Park

Female flowers on hazel at Wrenthorpe Park

Female flowers on hazel at Wrenthorpe Park

Snowdrops and winter aconites have also defied the winter and are now in full flower (see attached photos).  They are a treasured double act, well naturalised and established in our urban greenspaces helping to cheer us up before the top of the bill flowers of spring arrive.

Winter aconites at Alverthorpe

Winter aconites at Alverthorpe

Snowdrops at Wrenthorpe Alverthorpe meadows

Snowdrops at Wrenthorpe Alverthorpe meadows

Big Garden Birdwatch 2021

The days of grey skies, ice packed ponds and blankets of snow, together with storm Christoph during this January have been enough to make us all shiver and seek refuge.   However, this coming weekend 29th to 31st January there is an opportunity to brighten our spirits particularly during these difficult times by taking part in the RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch.  It is the world’s largest garden wildlife survey and it has been helping us to understand the changes occurring to the wildlife on our own doorstep especially for our more common garden birds since it started in 1979.

It only takes one hour, anyone can take part and best of all it can all be done in the comfort of our own homes or local green spaces while respecting current Covid-19 advice.  Last year the UK top ten were as follows 1. house sparrow  2. starling  3. blue tit  4. woodpigeon  5. Blackbird  6. goldfinch  7. great tit  8. robin  9. long-tailed tit  10 magpie.  However, at this time of year when natural food is scarce our bird tables can attract surprise visitors.  Indeed, every bird counts to the survey and adds to our appreciation and enjoyment of wildlife.   I am hopeful the robin photographed at home on 14 January2021 will visit again to keep its place in the top ten. More details about the Big Garden Birdwatch 2021 are available at the following link www.rspb.org.uk/get-involved/activities/birdwatch/

Robin searching for food. 14 January 2021

Robin searching for food. 14 January 2021

An apple a day helps to keep the hunger away for winter birds

Some wildlife followers may see winter as a season of relative emptiness and in some ways a time that is almost unused by nature itself.  To others the return of falling snow and ice over the past few days may create a mini wild arctic landscape of the mind right on our doorsteps.  The bounty of local hawthorn berries along Jerry Clay Lane and Trough Well Lane at Wrenthorpe have been hungrily foraged by redwing, fieldfare, mistle thrush and blackbirds.  Now their attention is turning to plantings in urban areas and in particular gardens with apple trees.  Indeed, blackbirds and mistle thrush have become obsessive feeders of fallen apples and are now increasingly unfriendly to any other birds attempting to muscle in on their valuable windfalls.  Attached photos show a mistle thrush in between courses in a small orchard close to Jerry Clay Lane and a blackbird standing guard over fallen apples at Wrenthorpe Road.

blackbird feeding on apples at Wrenthorpe Road.

blackbird feeding on apples at Wrenthorpe Road.

blackbird feeding on apples at Wrenthorpe Road.

blackbird feeding on apples at Wrenthorpe Road.

Many birds and animals are now fighting for survival to take them through the worst of the weather to spring.  Just putting out any unwanted apples on the lawn and keeping bird feeders topped up, together with a supply of fresh water can make a massive difference to them and repay us with memorable close-up views of nature in our own backyard.  Attached photos show close encounters with Grey squirrel and nuthatch at Nostell Priory by the bottom lake over the New Year period.

Grey squirrel at Nostell Priory

Grey squirrel at Nostell Priory

nuthatch at Nostell Priory

nuthatch at Nostell Priory

Together with the bird sightings our local lockdown walks have also revealed several wildflowers in bloom even at this time of year.  These include red deadnettle, daisy, dandelion, cow parsley and hogweed.  Perhaps winter is not so bleak after all.

Misty morning and glimmers of hope for nature conservation

Today during my regular lockdown walk the early morning mist added another visual permutation to a now very familiar landscape.  A background of electricity pylons and other urban paraphernalia, together with the busy M1 motorway were magically masked away.  Suddenly a mature common ash tree (see attached photo) stood proud of all the urban tangle albeit for a short while only, but perhaps just long enough to give a glimpse back in time to its early life when the future of this species was more assured.  Sadly, this arboreal, landscape and wildlife treasure is threatened by ash-dieback.  This is a highly infectious fungal disease originating in Asia and first recorded in England in 2012, although it may have been in the UK since 2002.  The fungal spores can spread in the wind and also by human transportation, especially by unknowingly moving infected young plants ready for planting elsewhere.  Current estimates suggest we may lose around 50% to 80% of the UK’s ash trees in the next few years.  At the moment scientists are working to discover genes with resistance to ash-dieback and this may offer glimmers of hope for ash trees in the future.

 

ash tree at Brandy Carr

ash tree at Brandy Carr

Much more heartening this week on the same walk has been the sighting of a tree sparrow.  This is a very scarce bird although there has been some signs of a recovery in the UK in recent years.  It has a brown cap and black cheek spots, unlike the house sparrow.  See attached grab photograph taken at Lindale Lane, Wrenthorpe.

tree sparrow at Lindale Lane Wrenthorpe

tree sparrow at Lindale Lane Wrenthorpe

On 24 November 2020  I watched two red kite methodically surveying the fields between Wrenthorpe and Brandy Carr and Kirkhamgate.  This species almost became extinct in the UK, but has now made an incredible comeback thanks to reintroduction programmes and legal protection.  See attached photo taken from my image stock.

Red Kite

Red Kite

The case of the silent witnesses and the lawyer’s wig

Recently my island of green which lies off the coast of the Wakefield city centre has been transformed.  Trees have released their leafy loads from the summer skies to form a mosaic of colours and shapes on the landing fields of autumn.  Together with being a visual treat there are also the unmistakable sounds, which keep in step as we walk through deep layers of fallen leaves.  This year this is amplified by a mass percussion section of snapping and crunching acorns under foot.  Many will be taken by jays and other wildlife.  Some will soon start to germinate to provide future generations of the nation’s favourite tree the oak.  The leaves will be collected by a silent army of worms and other allies.  Taken to underground bunkers to help form and improve tomorrow’s soil.

Another silent witness is the field maple, which has suddenly come forward to show its autumn glories.  In summer the leaves get their colour from a green pigment called chlorophyll.  In autumn as the leaves die the chemical balance of this and other pigments changes to expose the beautiful yellows and golds.  The attached photo shows a single leaf still attached to a tree at Brandy Carr.  A small to medium size tree and hedgerow shrub the field maple is our only native maple.  It is a most valuable landscape and wildlife tree. The early flowers are a timely source of nectar and pollen for insects.  Aphids feed on the leaves that in turn attract bluetits and other birds, together with insects such as hoverflies and ladybirds.  In addition the seeds are eaten by small mammals.  Also, the timber is prized by wood-turners and carvers.

field maple at Brandy Carr

Yesterday during my local walk I noticed my silent witnesses have coincidentally arrived with the emergence of a fungus called Lawyer’s Wig.  In part this may be because when young the shaggy white scales on the cap of the fungus may resemble a lawyer’s wig .  Also, it is perhaps more commonly known as shaggy ink cap and the attached photo show the fungus growing in a grass verge at Carr Gate.  It shows the cap of the fruiting body is beginning to self-digest quickly dissolving into a blacky inky slime.  Indeed, during the 17th and 18th centuries it is believed the liquid may have been used for making legal documents and bank notes, because the lack of any fungal spores may otherwise have suggested a forgery.

shaggy ink cap at Carr Gate

shaggy ink cap at Carr Gate

When is Autumn?

Meteorological autumn was on 1st September and astronomical autumn has entered the calendar this week.  However, the natural world around us has already started to spirit away our memorable summer into the four seasons departure lounge.

Surrounding hedgerows are laden with hawthorn berries and rose hips; hopefully these will attract flocks of winter visitors such as fieldfares and redwings provided the local blackbirds remember to leave them some.   At this time of year necklaces of hedge bindweed bugle the close of this plant’s beauty and the beast’s summer season (see photo).  In the wild the flowers are visited by insect pollinators, but elsewhere, especially in gardens,  it may be difficult to control and quickly grow to the exclusion of other plants.  Local oaks appear to have produced a bumper crop of acorns – a bounty for seed eating animals and birds such as squirrels and jays during the winter.

.hedge bindweed

Elsewhere on my walks around Wrenthorpe, Brandy Carr and Carr Gate there is a further changing of the guard in the species of butterflies.  Small numbers of speckled wood and small white still hold on faithfully to shortening days of fading sunlight albeit in reducing numbers.  In the garden a red admiral has been a regular visitor to the flowers of the buddleia x weyeriana during the recent warm spell, together with a comma nectaring on ivy flowers in readiness for hibernation.

comma on ivy

comma on ivy

red admiral

red admiral

Now I wonder if the single swallow I saw flying over Jerry Clay Lane on Sunday will be the last one I see until next spring?

Wildlife Under the Garden Radar

How can one of the UK’s largest and most distinctive moth caterpillars go under the garden radar at home for so long without being seen until Sue found it feeding on her prize fuchsia.  This is one of Britain’s largest caterpillars growing up to nearly 9cm long with an eye popping front end and a punk rock style spike at the rear.  See attached photo.  This is the caterpillar of the elephant hawk moth.  The adult is one of our most elegant moths and beautifully photographed by our president, John Gardner. in his post on 27 May 2020.   The caterpillars also feed on rosebay and bedstraws before settling down in the autumn to pupate as a cocoon in leaf litter and soil.  The adults emerge and are on the wing during summer feeding on the nectar of night scented flowers such as honey suckle, which by coincidence is growing just next to the fuchsia in the garden.

elephant hawkmoth caterpillar

elephant hawkmoth caterpillar

Also going unnoticed under the garden radar until this summer have been some grasshoppers.  Quite a surprise in such an urban area and particularly as I have now been looking after the garden for over forty years!

A more obvious insect seen in the garden in the past two weeks has been the silver Y moth.  This is a regular migrant often seen flying fast and somewhat erratically during the day searching flowers for nectar and in the attached photo can be seen on heather.

silver y moth

silver y moth

Raindrops and Ringlets

Not deterred by the unsettled weather at the end of June, I planned to start the new month with a walk using footpaths around the village of West Bretton avoiding the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, which remained closed due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.  Come the morning of 1st July with a forecast of grey skies and intermittent drizzle I was beginning to have second thoughts.  However, the clouds started to thin, albeit slightly, allowing some weak sunshine to filter through coaxing the temperature to slowly lift.  So I was soon more hopeful of seeing some wildlife and set off.  The conditions underfoot, indeed almost up to waist level in the tall grass, was very wet.  Nevertheless, in places there were clouds of ringlet butterflies fluttering carefully amongst a mass of raindrops delicately balanced on narrow leaves shimmering like precious gems.  An ephemeral gift of heavy overnight rain.

ringlet

ringlet butterfly

Other butterflies included a small number of meadow brown, two small tortoiseshell, a single small skipper and good numbers of the caterpillars of peacock butterfly feeding on nettle.  During a brief shower towards the end of the walk I shared the shelter of a tall hedgerow with a bumble bee attracted to the flower and pollen of a field rose (Rosa arvensis). So even on this occasion rain didn’t stop play.

field rose and bumble bee

field rose and bumble bee

Getting into the Groove

These days I am doing the same local walk so often I can imagine I am cutting a groove in the tarmac along Jerry Clay Lane, Wrenthorpe.  This lane is my gateway to a small island of surviving countryside around Brandy Carr and Carr Gate.  I guess due to the Covid-19 outbreak the verges along the lane have not been cut back allowing many plants the opportunity and freedom to flower and hopefully seed.  In particular the hedges are entwined together with flowering  bramble and dog rose (photo attached).  In turn they are attracting a wide range of pollinating insects.  I wonder if giving wildlife a chance like this will catch on.  My first meadow brown and large skipper butterflies of 2020 were seen here on the 31 May.  A photo of a large skipper nectaring on an elder bush close to Brandy Carr Road is attached.  Also, there appears to be a good emergence of small tortoiseshell butterflies probably resulting from eggs laid this April and early May by the overwintering adults.  Certainly the caterpillars feeding on the garden nettle patch at home dispersed some time ago.   Astonishingly researchers have found them to travel up to 55 metres from the nearest nettles looking for sites to pupate.  Bird sightings along Jerry Clay Lane this week include buzzard, kestrel, great spotted woodpecker, blackcap, whitethroat, yellowhammer, chaffinch and a lapwing has returned after an absence of two weeks.

arge skipper near Brandy Carr Road

arge skipper near Brandy Carr Road

dog rose

dog rose

Further into the walk looking towards Ossett church the yellow sea of oil seed rape has ebbed away exposing ribbons of scented mayweed and poppies around the field edges.  The attached photos show the changing landscape on 2 May 2020 and scented mayweed and poppies on 2 June.

Ossett church from Carr Gate

Ossett church from Carr Gate

poppy and scented mayweed

poppy and scented mayweed

Elsewhere in our local park the marsh orchids are flowering.  Photo attached.  They are most likely to be hybrids.  Wakefield is close to the southern limit of the northern marsh orchid and close to the northern limit of the southern marsh orchid and offspring showing characteristics from each species may be expected.  Similarly, both species may also hybridise with common spotted orchids.  So the jury remains out for another year on trying to positively identify them.

4.hybrid marsh orchid

4.hybrid marsh orchid

Getting Ready for Summer

The Corvid-19 outbreak lockdown rules have recently been relaxed.  Even so at the moment I continue to be loyal to my local walks all taken within one and half or so miles from home rather than travelling further away.  This has now become a very familiar landscape to me, but it is beginning to show signs it is ready to change and leave spring behind.  The pristine fresh green tree leaves are now more sombre with many sycamore covered with ‘honeydew’ a sticky substance excreted by feeding aphids.  The tiny caterpillars of moths blown in the wind abseil down from the tops of oak trees on fragile silken threads like miniature SAS commandos.  All these insects are a timely food source for hungry young birds and their exhausted parents.  Similarly, the yellow fields of oil seed rape are fading fast turning their energy to the job of seed production.  Even so their narrow field margins remain a refuge for some wildflowers to shine especially flaming red poppies.  Photo attached.  Elsewhere yellow is intensifying around paddocks full of buttercups and young rabbits.

poppy and oil seed rape

poppy and oil seed rape

9.rabbit and buttercups

9.rabbit and buttercups

On the 11 May I reported the progress of the small tortoiseshell butterflies caterpillars that have transformed the garden patch of nettles into their dining room.  They continue to devour their host plant leaving only a skeleton.  It is a reminder they will soon start to pupate and then emerge to announce a changing of the guards and summer has arrived.

small tortoiseshell caterpillars

small tortoiseshell caterpillars