22 Aug 2010

Grimpo Nature Notes – August & July 2010

Inspired by the extreme adventures of Bear Grylls my youngest was determined to have an adventure all of his own. Setting out to reconnoitre a likely spot for a bivouac [picnic] we headed for a nearby copse of trees. Along the way we skirted the headlands of a number of fields, there between the hedge and crop a few arable flowers put on a display. The most pleasing of the bunch being clumps of Field pansy. The Field pansy is an increasingly common annual wildflower finding easy purchase on arable and disturbed ground. Pansies can display a very wide range of colour variations, today we were treated to pale cream petals gently streaked with chocolate stripes.

The copse lay in a characteristic damp North Shropshire hollow, inevitably we were quickly covered in mosquitoes and beat an orderly retreat. But before departing the hostile wood I spotted a peculiar buttercup-like flower. The five petals were the usual glossy bright yellow but the thin straggling stems lacked rigidity making the plant crawl across the ground. A buttercup, yes, but neither Creeping, the gardener’s terror nor Meadow, but the Lesser spearwort. The scientific name being Ranunculus flammula, the first meaning ‘frog like’, and the second referring to the ‘flame’ shaped leaves. A good number of the buttercup family such as Lesser celandine like damp conditions which possibly explains the frog like appellation.

Elsewhere in the wood Soft rush and Broad buckler fern crowns sent up their varied spikes and fronds. Damp pocketed woodlands like this have been preserved against agricultural advance growing as they do on difficult to drain land. The hollows are the result of the action of a great ice sheet that over lay the North Shropshire and Cheshire Plain 10,000 years ago. Varied deposits of glacial till have left behind peat lands, mosses and meres. Over towards Baggy Moor this low lying landscape has proved the haunt of our smallest bird of prey, the Merlin. It has a characteristic low, fast flight hunting down small song birds. The breeding pair numbers in Shropshire have been less than double figures for a long time, so a sight of this skilled pilot is a thrill. The Merlin lacks the moustaches of its bigger relative the Hobby and has distinctive black streaks on its brown chest.

Our wetlands generate swarms of insects and their accompanying bird predators. Making our way to another likely jungle setting, swooping streamer tailed air athletes feasted. At first we marvelled at the Swallows, but our accolades were saved for the Swifts. Matt black and uncompromising in the power of their curving progress, we were spared the slightly unnerving scream they make when flying over the breeding colony. Elsewhere a deep blue Emperor dragonfly was mesmerising a wildlife watcher with its pulsing hunting patrol flight. The last few months have been better for butterflies, Ringlets, Meadow browns and Gatekeepers all flying in good numbers. The Ringlet appears quite dark in flight but up close the female carries the most delightful eyed spots on its wings, rather like a half dozen RAF roundels. A darkening sky forces most of these tender creatures to ground, today’s weather was mixed and thoughts turned to home.

We gathered the first blackberries on our way back,  fat purple drupes, sweet washed by a brief shower. Some of the runners were still in flower ensuring a long season of pies, crumbles and red stained lips. Closing the door behind us we began planning for our next adventure, maybe this time we’ll go out for the whole afternoon!

Happy Wildlife Spotting, best wishes, Pete.

If you would like to share your wildlife sights I would love to hear from you, my email is:  petewoodman@thewoods12.fsnet.co.uk

Grimpo Nature Notes July 2010

PB had suggested I take a walk along the canal and down to visit the Aston Locks nature reserve. Very good advice I concluded after a delightful stroll beside the beautiful and diverse bankside flora. I had hoped to catch a flash of azure, as reports of kingfishers had been made from both Heath Houses and the Boneworks.   I was not so lucky either in hoping to see curlews on my visit though they are around, my first encounter being the frothy cream heads of the Meadowsweet, confirmed by its red stems. Meadow sweet was used in mediaeval times to flavour mead though it’s name over time evolved to reflect it fondness for damp meadows, various parts of the flower carry different scents from the honey tinged flowers and the sharpness of the leaves. In stark contrast further along I spied the drooping purple flowers of the Bittersweet, also known as Woody Nightshade. Despite an attractive climbing habit the Bittersweet leaves smell of burnt rubber and of course the red berries are poisonous.

Wildflowers adopt a fantastic range of forms to take advantage of soil, sun and water. Birds Foot trefoil or more commonly called Eggs and Bacon, tends to grow low on disturbed soils, its yellow and red tinged flowers making a show of a plain area of grass. Along the towpath it is joined by red and white clover, now past their best but still contributing a bobble head of colour. With my eye trained into to spot the yellows, I realised I was a little early for the full show of the water lilies but they were on their way, and a little late for the flag iris who’s bulging seeds pods were ripening on the stem. But just in time for the silverweed, the flower is mildly similar to buttercup but with a livelier edge to the keenly coloured petals.

I had to reach for my plant book for the next few yards, a group of medium tall plants that all looked like nettles but the varying colour flower heads said different.  Finally I was able to distinguish Gipsywort, from which a fast black dye can be produced. Then White deadnettle, non stinging, propped up the left hand side of the stand of imitators. The square hairy stems of Purple loosestrife with its towering spike of red/pink whorls of flowers were next. Loosestrife derives its name from the Greek belief that it had a powerful calming effect on oxen.

Tangled through the plants invasive tendrils of Goosegrass or cleavers, bullied their way to the light. For such a vigorous plant it has such insignificant white flowers. I was pleased that as I moved towards the waters edge a finer and more delicate cousin of the Goosegrass was in flower, the Marsh bedstraw, it’s white four petalled blooms held by a thin tracery of stems and whorls of leaves. The bedstraws all have the characteristic whorl of leaves, along some of our local lanes I have seen the yellow flowered Lady’s bedstraw and in the Berwyns can be found the tiny Heath bedstraw.

Just before I turned for home I spotted a tuft of blue flowered plants which on closer inspection I recognised as Skullcap. The name derives from the shape of the flower which is reminiscent of a Roman soldier’s leather helmet. The skullcap ironically is a member of the same family as the deadnettles that had caused me problems earlier; we have another, Black horehound growing by the compost heap in the garden.

In other local gardens, treats from the last month include Bullfinches, Long tailed tits and broods of blue tits, fledging now, so fingers crossed. Finally an intriguing report of a Nightjar has been received near Threadneedle Street, this secretive nocturnal bird has a distinctive frog like call and a wide gaping mouth to catch moths on the wing.

As ever a jam packed month, make sure you spare at least one balmy evening to commune with nature at her brightest.  

Happy Wildlife Spotting, best wishes, Pete.