Thursday, 31 March 2016

Bluebells and angles

It was another beautiful day in the Chilterns, so Bug Mad Girl and I went for a walk (the dog ran for most of it) around the Sculpture Trail.

The bluebells were really starting to open, although they were still far from being at their best. They still haven't flowered enough to make a 'blue carpet' on the floor of the woods, but they're on their way. The UK is home to about half of the world's bluebells and some of the best displays occur in our bluebell woods. They really are lovely!

Bluebells are an indicator of ancient woodland and are steeped in folklore. Apparently if you hear a bluebell ring, it's a sign of impending death. Luckily, we didn't hear any ringing today! Although in the language of flowers it's the symbol of everlasting love.

bluebell flowers are an important early nectar source for bees and other insects. Some bees 'steal' the nectar by making a hole in the base of the flower so they can reach the pollen without pollinating the flower.

Bluebells have been used for all sorts of things throughout history. In the bronze age, bluebell glue was used to stick feathers to arrows. The Victorians stiffened their collars with the starch extracted from crushed bluebell bulbs and bluebell sap used to be used to bind pages to the spines of books.

There were also a few violets lining the path. They're much easier to overlook than the bluebells, but no less pretty.

Bug Mad Girl gave me a lesson in angles as she looked out for right angles and acute angles in everything. You've got to love a bit of maths practice as you walk around the woods!
Acute angle

Right angle
The path leads through the woods, where there are some great trees to climb and dens to explore.

Some of the dens are huge and must have taken a lot of work to build.

Saturday, 26 March 2016

Spring in the back garden

What a difference a day makes. We spent yesterday outside in the beautiful sunshine, at the Ragpits and in the back garden, marvelling at the delights of spring. Today we're all stuck indoors as the wind drives the rain sideways and it looks more like winter than spring. So, here are a few of our spring sightings from yesterday.

A brimstone was bombing around the back garden for much of the day. It's been around for a few days now and never seems to settle for long. We also saw our first comma of the year, which was more obliging and posed for a photo.

We had a couple of other firsts for the year in the back garden. Our first white-tailed bumble bee and a wasp were both sunbathing on the Mexican Orange Blossom. It's not in flower yet, but I think the bright yellowy leaves make it a good place to soak up the suns rays. It certainly seemed popular yesterday. Both of these are queens that have come out of hibernation and will be looking for sites to lay eggs and start a new colony.
White-tailed bumble bee

The back garden birds have all been extremely busy. Brenda, the blackbird, has been taking earth up to her nest to make the shiny, mud lining. She must be very nearly ready to lay eggs now. The blue tits have been in and out of the nest box on the silver birch and I've seen red kites flying over head carrying sticks, so they've started their nests too. Still no sign of a male blackcap, but the female is using the feeders every day and the goldfinches are often on the nyger seed feeders.

The blue tits have been in and out of the nest box,
although I haven't seen them taking any nesting
material in yet

Last summer we looked after some emperor moth caterpillars, which you can read about here, that pupated and have been out in the greenhouse all winter. The first one, a male, emerged yesterday. They're such lovely moths, with four large eye spots and bright orange hind wings.

Another lovely spring day ... now we're back to the more traditional bank holiday gales.

Friday, 25 March 2016

Spring Ragpits

Today was the first day of the Easter holidays and such a beautiful sunny day, so I took the kids to Aston Clinton Ragpits. It's such a wonderful place and one of our favourites.

First thing we always have to do is check for slowworms under all of the metal sheets left out for them to bask underneath. Perhaps it's still a little bit early for them to be out of hibernation as we didn't find any today. We did see a little vole under one sheet, but Little Brother was so surprised to see it that he dropped the sheet. Needless to say it was long gone when we picked the sheet back up!

The primroses looked beautiful in the sunshine and there were lots of white-tailed bumblebees buzzing around them. It definitely felt like spring had arrived this morning.

White-tailed bumble bee on a primrose
Some daphne mezereum was flowering in the meadow. It's such a pretty flower and quite rare in the wild.

I love the hazel catkins at this time of year. These are actually the male flowers and the female flowers are tiny little red flowers that you really have to hunt for.

Hazel catkins

A hazel catkin and the tiny red female flower
Coltsfoot was flowering on the slopes and we saw hoverflies, ladybirds, bumble bees and some little bugs. We thought we might see some butterflies there, but not this morning.


7-spot ladybird
 It felt like the Ragpits were really waking up and spring had most definitely sprung!

Sunday, 20 March 2016

Small is beautiful

What could possibly make these people get down on their hands and knees and stick their bottoms in the air?

Well moss, of course! No, they're not praying to the moss gods, they're using hand lenses to look at a tiny moss growing on the chalk slope. This morning I attended a moss walk on Grangelands that was led by Peter Creed and organised by BBOWT. It's my local nature reserve and I visit regularly, but I still love to find out some of its secrets.

We walked through the woods, then out onto the chalk grassland, looking at different mosses and liverworts as we went. Our most exciting discovery was a rare moss called fir tamarisk-moss that was growing all over the chalk slope. It really did look like a tiny fir tree and is found on unimproved chalk grassland in the South of England.
fir tamarisk-moss

I must have waked there hundreds of times and I've never noticed it before, so it shows how it really pays to get down on your hands and knees and have a close look. Some of our group were so excited to find it that they fell over!

Mosses come in one of two forms, either tufted cushions (agrocarps) or long, tendril-like shoots(pleurocarps). They don't have flowers, but produce capsules on a stem called a seta. The capsule is covered by a calyptra while it matures, which eventually drops off. The capsule has a lid on it, which reveals tiny teeth called peristomes.

Creeping feather moss, with bright red seta and capsules that are still
developing and are covered by the pale green calyptra
Rough-stalked feather-moss, with deep red seta and capsules. Look closely
and you can see capsules with a lid on (right) and showing the peristomes (left)

Mosses come in all shapes and sizes and are surprisingly particular about their habitats and what they'll grow on. English rock bristle is tiny (the leaves are about 1mm long) and grows only on chalk fragments. We definitely needed a hand lens to get a good look at this miniature moss.

English rock bristle

English rock bristle growing on a chalk fragment
In contrast, rambling tail moss is a large yellow-green moss commonly found in calcareous woodland. Often seen tumbling over banks, this is an easy one to spot.

Rambling tail moss
Spiral extinguisher moss grows on bare chalk in the Chilterns and has leaves that form a floret. It's one of the mosses that doesn't produce capsules.
Spiral extinguisher moss
There are some mosses that are even more specific. We found one tiny clump of upright pottia growing on an ant hill out on the chalk grassland. It likes disturbed soil, so it even had to be an ant hill that had been dug into by something.
Yellow meadow ant hill that has been damaged on the left hand side

Upright pottia - a tint moss with red spherical capsules
Identifying moss can be a tricky business, especially as it can change shape and even colour when it dries out. We found some intermediate screw moss, growing on the roots of a beech tree, that had leaves that were twisted tight and were very dark in colour. We sprayed it with some water and it completely changed its appearance in a matter of seconds. The leaves opened out and it turned bright green.
Intermediary screw moss - before being sprayed with water

Intermediary screw moss - after being sprayed with water
Liverworts are bryophytes like mosses, but they look more primitive and lack a central nerve in the leaf. We found two today, but they couldn't have been more different. The first was wall scalewort, one of the largest liverworts, which was growing around the base of the beech trees.

Wall scalewort

Wall scalewort
The second liverwort we found had a lovely name, top notchwort, but was tiny and looked more like a tiny green fuzz growing on the bare chalk slopes.

Top notchwort
And to finish ... the wonderful view across Grangelands!

Friday, 18 March 2016

A hint of blue

The first bluebells are just starting to flower on Brush Hill. It won't be long now until the woods turn into a sea of blue, but the water's currently green with just the slightest hint of blue!

Then in the car park I found three soggy little wood anemones in flower. They're the first I've noticed up there this year, although in a few more weeks there should be lots of them. They're such pretty little flowers when they're fully open and an indicator of ancient woodland. It always makes me laugh that some of the best treasures on Brush Hill hang out in the car park, but it's often a good place to look for something!

I'm really looking forward to the woodland flowers appearing over the next few weeks.