Wednesday, 30 May 2012

A few flowers from St Helens

The following photos were taken at a private site in St Helens.

Heath Speedwell. This is the only site I know of in St Helens for this species.

Marsh orchids are notoriously difficult to identify, and it's not helped by their habit of hybridising. I think that this is Early Marsh Orchid. Look at the shape of the flower and compare it to the deeper purple Northern Marsh Orchid below.

However, now look at the leaves and you will see that they are spotted, which apparently makes it sub species cruenta, which is a very rare sub species in the UK. So perhaps it's actually Common Spotted Orchid, though the flowe shape doesn't look right, and the spots look too small and numerous to me.

Northern Marsh Orchid

Monday, 28 May 2012

Upper Teesdale

Todays Breeding Bird Survey in the North Pennines produced Black Grouse and Short-eared Owl amongst other things, and following the survey I headed home via Upper Teesdale. It was a glorious day, but the Spring Gentians are now completely over. I climbed Cronkley Fell, Widdybank Fell and had a look along the banks of the Tees and could only find two Gentians, both shriveled remnants of their former glory. Birds on Cronkley Fell included two Ring Ouzels.

Cow Green reservoir - "Hindsight is a lazy vision, but successive generations will condemn in amazement the desecration of this natural area which is arguably the most imprtant botanical site in England." So wrote Sylvia Arnold in her book "Wild Flowers of the Yorkshire Dales". It's hard to disagree.....

The summit of Cronkley Fell.

The River Tees with Widdybank Fell.

The insectivorous Common Butterwort with Bird's-eye Primrose behind. Interesting to think that this plant uses insects for pollination and also eats them!

Spring Sandwort on Cronkley Fell

Hoary Rockrose on Cronkley Fell. This is a rare relation of the Common Rockrose, and is found mainly in North Wales, where I've seen it best on the Great Orme at Llandudno. It's a very rare plant in England, and on Cronkley Fell it is at its most northerly site in the UK.

I've seen more than my fair share of breeding Golden Plover recently, and here is another near the summit of Cronkley Fell.

I've seen a few of these as well - Red Grouse, this one also on Cronkley Fell.

Sunday, 27 May 2012

Eccleston Mere

I've been keeping my eye on a Great Spotted Woodpecker nest over the last few weeks, and today I was lucky enough to see an adult feeding a chick.

I could hear the young bird from the other side of the mere, it was making such a racket. It must drive its parents insane! Not in the least bit shy, it stuck its head out of its nest hole, and called away as I watched. You can see that it has the red crown of the young Great Spotted Woodpecker.

While I was watching, an adult flew in and fed the chick. You can see on this photo that the adult does not have the red crown. In fact it's probably the female, because it does not appear to have the red nape of the male. Interestingly, there is a second hole about 30cm higher up and on the side of the tree which I saw the birds using earlier in the month.

Canada Geese breed at the mere in quite large numbers, and on average raise about 30 goslings. This group is probably six families merged together.  You can see how much the chicks vary in size. There is another family with about five goslings which have not yet joined up with the main group, but they will eventually. I suspect that dominant pairs take over the ownership of the young, and the other adults just leave them to it.

Saturday, 26 May 2012

A lady and a duke at Gait Barrows

A very long and busy day today. At 6:30am, following a drive of over two hours, I was in Swaledale in the Yorkshire Dales ready to begin a Breeding Bird Survey. Lots of good birds seen, including breeding Ring Ouzels, Golden Plover and Curlew. With the survey completed by 10am, I set off for home, but it was such a nice day that I couldn't resist a quick visit to Gait Barrows, near Silverdale.

Duke of Burgandy, a speciallity of Gait Barrows. Other butterflies on the wing today included Green Hairstreak, Brimstone and Pearl Bordered Fritillary.

The status of Lady's Slipper Orchid has changed somewhat in recent years. Collected almost to the point of extinction in Victorian times, by the time I first started taking an interest in orchids in the late 1970s, I knew of only two plants in the whole of the UK, one in Yorkshire, and the other in Lancashire, and the exact locations of each was a closely guarded secret. The Yorkshire plant was thought to be the only naturally growing Lady's Slipper in the UK, with the Lancashire plant (above) thought to have been Austrian in origin and planted by a Victorian botanist.

However, in recent years seed has been taken from the Yorkshire plant and it has been propogated at Kew Gardens, and re-introduced to various sites, including Gait Barrows (above). You can read the full fascinating story on the Kew Gardens website.

No longer a secret, today was Lady's Slipper Orchid open day at Gait Barrows, when the public were invited to view the orchids, with signs directing you to the exact locallity. Hopefully this spectacular plant will be allowed to recover.


Friday, 25 May 2012

Highfield Moss

Highfield Moss at Lowton is a SSSI, largely on account of its peatland vegetation, which is the best remaining example of raised mire in Greater Manchester and Merseyside. It is a stronghold in North-West England for Marsh Gentian Gentiana pneumonanthe which flowers in August / September.

The sedge Carex nigra in full flower the two top orange spikes are the male spikes, whilst the white / lime green lower spikes are female. Interestingly, you can see that the lower male spike is partly lime green at the bottom, indicating that it is both male and female.

A local scarcity, this is Petty Whin Genista anglica, which is a dwarf relative of gorse.

Highfield Moss

Thursday, 24 May 2012

Roadside plants from the Rainford bypass

Common Stork's-bill, a slightly unsatisfactory looking geranium I think. The petals are often unequal, the leaves don't seem quite right for a geranium and the only the top two petals (sometimes!) have black spots. Weird.... It's actually mainly a coastal plant, and the only section of the Rainford bypass where I have seen it is alongside the new golf course, where the ground has recently been disturbed, and where competition from grasses etc. is still quite light.

A much more satisfactory flower, this is Germander Speedwell. The only odd thing about this beautiful flower is that it sounds like it belongs in a Beatrix Potter novel. Oh, and it has hairs up just two sides of the stem, the other two sides being completely bald.....

Old Coach Road

Tree Sparrows 15 Clare's Moss
Oystercatcher 2
Canada Goose 2 adults with 6 goslings on Clare's Moss

The Tree Sparrow flock on Clare's Moss gets bigger by the day, but despite the excitment of Hobby and Whinchat earlier this week, there seems to be a general slowing down of migration, with no Wheatears for a few days now.

Eccleston Mere

Tree Sparrow 2
Gadwall 1 male
Oystercatcher 1
Whitethroat 5 singing
Lesser Redpoll 3 displaying
Kingfisher 1

When I first started visiting the mere about 25 years ago, I saw Tree Sparrows pretty regularly, but these days they're quite a rarity, and these are the first I have seen there since 2007. They're still in good numbers on Catchdale Moss, the Rainford Mosslands and Billinge Hill, but obviously something is wrong for them at the mere.

One of my favourite plants from this time of year, Wood Avens, growing on the eastern bank of the mere.

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Old Coach Road

Hobby 1 over horse paddocks on Clare's Moss
Curlew 1
Tree Sparrow 10
Shelduck 4
Grey Partridge 2

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Eccleston Mere

Great Black Back Gull 1 adult summer
Lesser Black Back Gull 1 adult summer (mobbing the GBBG for size comparison!)
Lesser Redpoll 4 displaying
Common Tern 2
Gadwall 1 female

Great Black Backs are quite unusual at the mere, and this is the first I have ever seen there in the beginning of April to end of October summer period.

Monday, 21 May 2012

Old Coach Road - evening visit

Whinchat 1 Old Coach Road, in horse paddocks on Clare's Moss.
Shelducks 2

Amazingly, this is the 5th Whinchat I have seen on exactly the same fence over the past 7 years.

Stanley Bank Meadow

Stanley Bank Meadow is the only SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest) in St Helens. It was designated a SSSI on account of its extensive area of damp unimproved neutral grassland, which is a rare habitat in Merseyside (Natural England Website). Summer finally arrived today!

A most unfern-like fern, Adder's-tongue grows here at one of it's few sites in Merseyside.

Carex hirta (Hairy Sedge), a very common sedge on the meadow.

Great Horsetail grows in the marshy valley bottoms of the adjacent woodland.

Ramsons (Wild Garlic).

Eccleston Mere

Cuckoo 1 calling
Common Tern 1
Lesser Redpoll 3 displaying
Oystercatcher 1
Whitethroat 5 singing

The Cuckoo was the first I have heard this year and only the third I have heard at the mere since 1999.

It's always nice to see Lesser Redpolls displaying. They breed at the mere in very small numbers.

Rainford Mosslands

Wheatear 5
Grey Partridge 2
Shelduck 2
Tree Sparrow 8

Shelduck may be thought of as mainly coastal birds, usually on estuaries, but in spring a few come inland looking for breeding sites. They are regular visitors to the local mosslands, and the photo below is typical, but they are very scarce breeders, and even when they do attempt to breed, they very rarely seem to fledge any young due to predation from crows, gulls and presumably foxes.

Saturday, 19 May 2012

Rainford Mosslands

Yellow Wagtail 1 male Dairy Farm Road
Wheatear 7 Old Coach Road
Tree Sparrow 2 Old Coach Road, 2 Catchdale Moss
Oystercatcher 3 Catchdale Moss, 4 Old Coach Road
Swift 100 Old Coach Road
Stock Dove 51 Old Coach Road
Shelduck 2 Old Coach Road

Eccleston Mere

Common Sandpiper 1
Swift 200
Swallow 100
Sand Martin 20
House Martin 50
Canada Goose 29 goslings

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Old Coach Road - Wheatears galore

Wheatear 19 (inc. 7 in horse paddocks on Clare's Moss and 11 in the ploughed field near New Cut Lane)
Oystercatcher 2
Tree Sparrow 4

Still quite a lot of Wheatears about for this late in the season. I guess that some of them at least will be the Greenland race leucorhoa which is larger and brighter than the nominate race oenanthe, which breeds in Britain. Greenland Wheatears pass through Britain slightly later in the spring than oenanthe.


As part of my work studying the invertebrates of the Ribble Estuary, I'm currently identifying springtails. These are strange little creatures which are only indentifiable under relatively high powered microscopes and with my camera they are almost impossible to photograph! The individual below is Isotoma viridis, and is about 4mm long in real life. This is a giant amongst springtails, and most are much smaller than this (and hence are unlikely to appear on this blog!).

Springtails (Collembola) are very common in just about every conceivable habitat. There might be 100,000 individuals in a cubic metre of topsoil, and they are a vital part of every ecosystem. There are an estimated 250 species in Britain, but they are much under studied and under recorded, and it's possible that you could find not only a new species for Britain, but a species new to science. Their exact class is a matter of debate, but it appears that they are no longer considered to be insects.

The long tail-like appendage is called the fuca and is the thing which makes them jump. This indivual is dead, but in life the fuca tucks under the body, and is released if the animal is threatened, propelling the springtail some considerable distance.

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Rainford Mosslands

Yellow Wagtail 1 Dairy Farm Road
Wheatear 7 Old Coach Road
Oystercatcher 2 Dairy Farm Road, 4 Old Coach Road
Tree Sparrow 4 Old Coach Road


With the Breeding Bird Survey on hold for a couple of weeks until the second round begins, I've been back studying invertebrates from the Ribble Estuary. I'm really pushing my camera to the limits on some of these creatures, so apologies if they're not great quality.

Below are some woodlice, all of which are pretty common, both on the Ribble and elsewhere. They are crustaceans, and there are 40 different species in the UK. They are identified by the number of flagella (segments) in the last segment of the antennae, the shape of the uropods (the spikey tail like things at the back) and the pereon and pleon. In Woodlice, the front part of the body (or thorax) is called the pereon, and in some woodlice it runs smoothly into the back part of the body (the abdomen), which is known as the pleon, whilst in other woodlice it is staggered. There are five very common species, three of which are shown here. The other two are Porcellio scaber (Common Rough Woodlouse) and Trichoniscus pusillus (Common Pygmy Woodlouse).

In the past, some people used to take them like pills for various ailments. Being crustaceans, they are a good source of calcium (or so I'm told).

Oniscus asellus (Common Shiny Woodlouse) - Three flagella, lob under the eye, pereon runs smoothly into the pleon.

Philoscia muscorum (Common Striped Woodlouse) - Three flagella, pereon and pleon staggered.

Armadillium vulgare (Common Pill Woodlouse) - Two flagella, very round form, uropods spade like and triangular.

Saturday, 12 May 2012

Rainford Mosslands

Yellow Wagtail 1 Dairy Farm Road
Grey Partridge 2 Dairy Farm Road
Wheatear 3 Old Coach Road, 1 Inglenook Farm, 1 Berrington's Lane
Whitethroat 1 Windle Hall, 3 Berrington's Lane, 2 Dairy Farm Road, 3 Old Coach Road
Tree Sparrow 4 Old Coach Road

Thursday, 10 May 2012

Eccleston Mere

Common Tern 1
Kingfisher 1
Whitethroat 5
Blackcap 4
Willow Warbler 4
Chiffchaff 2
Oystercatcher 1

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Yet more Pennines birding

Another fabulous few days in the Pennines working on Breeding Bird Surveys. I've been really impressed by the numbers of birds I've seen, lots of Redstarts and Ring Ouzels again, but the highlight this week were the Golden Plover. It's a wonderful experience to see these great birds calling and displaying at close range in good numbers.

Golden Plover.

Green Hairstreak butterfly.


Friday, 4 May 2012

More Pennines birding

Another week working on Breeding Bird Surveys in the Pennines, highlights included plenty of Ring Ouzels and Redstarts, and several Short-eared Owls. The village where I was staying had a Badger set nearby, and I spent a couple of evenings hiding silently in the undergrowth, watching the animals going about their business. A wonderful experience.

I was also handily placed for a quick late afternoon visit to Teesdale when the surveying was finished for the day..............

Thursday, 3 May 2012

Upper Teesdale

The River Tees meanders its way through a landscape of rolling green hills which have remained unchanged for millennia. With the warming of the climate following the last ice age, whilst much of the UK was covered in trees, many arctic-alpine plants found refuge on the Teesdale fells, where the trees could not take hold on the crumbling soils of the sugar limestone outcrops. When man began to clear the forests around 1000 BC, the plants were then able to spread down the fells and into the valleys. This has resulted in an area which has been described as arguably the most important botanical site in England.

I realise that certain readers of this blog may consider that I am a little obsessed with Gentians, but they are a charismatic and often stunningly beautiful family, and none more so than the electric blue Spring Gentian, which in the UK grows only in Upper Teesdale, and only consents to open fully on bright sunny days. They are also very photogenic, you can never take enough photos of a Spring Gentian, and I can't decide which is the best of the many photographs I took today, so, with no apologies given, here are a few of my favourites.

Botanically speaking, it's still a little early in the year, but there are still plenty of species to see other than the gentians, most notably the beautiful Bird's-eye Primrose, and the very rare Teesdale Violet.

To the botanist this is paradise, and birds seem very much secondary here, but even so we shouldn't ignore the fact that this is one of the best breeding sites in England for a variety of waders and the calls and displays of Curlew, Redshank, Lapwings, Common Sandpiper, Snipe and Oystercatcher provide the backdrop, or should that be the canvas, to a glorious days botanising. Also here, though more difficult to see are Black Grouse, Short-eared Owl, Merlin and Ring Ouzel.

With the River Tees in the background.

Bird's-eye Primrose

Bird's-eye Primrose

A white version of Bird's-eye Primrose.

Teesdale Violet is quite a difficult plant to identify, but this one seemed a likely candidate, with very downy, kidney shaped leaves, characteristic of the species, and seperating it from the almost hairless, heart shaped leaves of the Common Dog Violet.

Mountain Pansey

The fern Green Spleenwort.

The River Tees with Cronkley Fell to the right.

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