Saturday, 28 April 2018

Samphire Hoe, Dover

With early spring flowers starting to pop up all over the place an afternoon trip to Samphire Hoe was in order to see the hundreds of Early Spider Orchids Ophrys sphegodes which have appeared on this man-made site. Samphire Hoe was created in 1997 using the 4.9 million cubic meters of chalk marl excavated by the building of the Channel Tunnel, creating a 30ha of new chalk down land in front of the cliffs.

The Beach at the end of Samphire Hoe, Dover
It didn't take long to find the Early-Spider Orchid with at least five plants in the overflow car park and then hundreds of plants along the paths towards the beach. It is thought that the disturbance caused by the creation of the site allowed windblown seed from nearby to take a flourish into what is currently Britain's most impressive site for this species.

Early Spider Orchid, Ophrys sphegodes

It was just the orchids which we saw, although early in the season there were still a few other species in flower. Common Milkwort Polygala vulgaris, is a small perennial plant with interesting blue or pink flowers. I was rather hoping to find a related species, Chalk Milkwort Polygala calcarea but had no luck this time.

Common Milkwort, Polygala vulgaris

Areas of scrubby vegetation, most of which was alongside the railway line contained the large flowering heads of Wayfaring Tree Viburnum lantana, a common species on calcareous soils. It white flowers will eventually give way to spays of red berries.

Wayfaring Tree, Viburnum lantana

Wild Cabbage, Brassica oleracea oleracea

All along the cliffs, sometimes clinging out of tiny crevices were plants of Wild Cabbage Brassica oleracea oleracea, a spindly declining species in Kent. It is currently thought that the species has been domesticated for thousands of years giving us the cultivars for cabbage, broccoli, brussels sprouts, kale and cauliflower. Flowering alongside were the first of the years Bird's Foot Trefoil Lotus corniculata which will soon be carpeting the cliffs.

Apart from the floral interest, a Fox scaling the cliffs by the visitors centre, which then disturbed nesting Kestrels and a pair of Ravens with their recently fleged brood it was rather quiet fauna wise.

Monday, 23 April 2018

Postling Wood, Postling & Folkestone Warren, Folkestone

Having spent most of the last couple of months on the shingle at Dungeness, it was time to get away for an afternoon exploring some ancient woodland up on the North Downs. With David and Gill as guides for the day and Matt visiting we made our way to the first stop, Postling Wood which had a few botanical treasures.

Postling Wood, A woodland full of Ancient Woodland Indicators (AWIs)
Due to being up on the chalk, the canopy comprised mainly of Ash Fraxinus excelsior with an under story of Hazel Corylus avellana providing the perfect for common spring ephemeral species such as Bluebells Hyacinthoides non-scripta, Wood Anemone Anemone nemorosa and Primrose Primula vulgaris although beautiful plants to see it wasn't why we'd made the pilgrimage.

Although we were a little late in the year, there was still evidence of the Green Hellebore Helleborus viridis which grow along the road verge. Although all of them had gone to seed it was still nice to see their delicate green nodding heads and large palmate leaves.

Green Hellebore, Helleborus viridis
Second on the list to find was Toothwort Lathraea squamaria, a species I have seen before in Wales but never before in England. It's unusual colour comes from the fact it is a saprophyte and has no chlorophyll, instead it gets its nutrients parasitically from its host plant, often Hazel.

Toothwort, Lathraea squamaria
A few other plants of note were also seen, the deep purple flowers of Early Dog-Violet Viola reichenbachiana which is often found in chalky dry woods. It is distinguishable from the Common Dog-Violet Viola riviniana due to its flowers having dark centres, dark spur and rounded leaves.

Early Dog-Violet, Viola reichenbachiana
The odd looking flowers of Goldilocks Buttercup Ranunculus auricomus were quite common along the bank by the road. Another basic soil lover it's distinctive misshapen and often missing petals give it a shabby look.

Goldilocks Buttercup, Ranunculus auricomus
Also present were several large patches of Moschatel Adoxa moschatellina, also known as Town-Hall clock due to its for faced flowers.

Moschatel Adoxa moschatellina
Once we'd finished looking at the flora we took a quick trip into Folkestone to try our luck seeing the Common Wall Lizards Podarcis muralis which inhabit the cliffs there. Although non-native to Britain, it only got as far a the Channel Islands before the channel flooded after the last inter-glacial period, there are several populations around the UK.

The view from the top of the Warren, Folkestone
At least six individuals were seen at the top of the warren, close to a nearby cafe, where they frequenting several of the buildings. The males are beautifully marked with emerald green mottling along its back, often scuttling off quickly when anyone approached. How this population became established has been lost to history but the local story is that they were released by a local pet shop owner who failed to sell them. Now they're thriving and they're here to stay.

Common Wall Lizard, Podarcis muralis

Tuesday, 13 February 2018

Conyer Creek, Kent

With the weather being so pleasant a trip to Conyer was on the cards with the hope of seeing two lovely wintering species.

Conyer  located on the north Kent coast is a small hamlet at the head of the Conyer creek which flows into the Swale. It's the site of one of the CES sites I ringed at last summer with rich variety of warbler species and a few breeding Turtle Doves in the scrubby vegetation, comprising of Salix spp. and Buddleja which has formed on site of the old brickworks.

Conyer Creek, looking towards the old brickworks.

On the other side of the creek behind the sea wall contains expanses of low lying grazing marsh, intersected with vegetated ditches. With the recent wet weather many of these fields had small pools, and it was around these that a group of 10 Shore Larks Eremophila alpestris were feeding, although I could get good views through the scope, it was way to distant for photographs.

Having arrived at high tide, many of the waders and waterfowl were roosting out on the mud as it was exposed. Large numbers of Dunlin Calidris alpina, Redshank Tringa totanus, Black-Tailed Godwit Limosa limosa, Oystercatcher Haematopus ostralegus, Teal Anas crecca and Wigeon Mareca penelope were present in the creek itself and occasionally flushed by a female Sparrowhawk Accipiter nisus. Out at the creek mouth a large flocks of Avocets Recurvirostra avosetta were roosting on a small island whilst the large numbers of Brent Geese Branta bernicla were flying up and down the Swale.

Saltmarsh alongside the sea wall

Halfway along the Saxon shore way, close to where the shore larks were feeding strand line detritus and halophytic grasses were two Snow Buntings Plectrophenax nivalisThese dumpy little confiding birds, often appear on the eastern coast of the UK to feed in sand dunes and saltmarshes on the seeds of weeds and grasses which grow there.

Snow Bunting, Plectrophenax nivalis
Snow Bunting busy feeding on seeds.

Having sat down to watch these two feed, it didn't take them long to get within a few meters of me, making it pretty difficult to get any photographs with my 400mm lens. after half an hour in the presents of these little birds it was time to wander back along the creek to the car.

Monday, 11 December 2017

Sgwd Yr Eira, Brecon Beacons National Park, Powys

With the recent heavy snowfall across Wales it was the perfect time for Bethan and I to visit Sgwd yr Eira, a magnificent waterfall deep within the valleys of the Brecon Beacons National Park.

Craig y Dinas, 'Fortress Rock'
Many geological and natural features which can be seen from the path to the falls, which follows the Afon Mellte and form the Dyffrynnoedd Nedd a Mellte, a Moel Penderyn SSSI which is listed due to its important semi-natural woodlands which contain a wide assemblage rare bryophytes and lichens as well as it old quarry faces, cliffs and gorges which give a window into Wales geological past.

From the car park your immediately met with a huge contorted slab of Carboniferous Limestone, known as Craig y Ddinas which roughly translated means 'Fortress Rock' due to the presence of Iron Age earthworks on the summit, although today much of this was covered by snow. The scrubby woodland which features around the base of the rock was mainly Sessile Oak Quercus petraea Ash Fraxinus excelsior Hawthorn Crataegus sp., Hazel Corylus avellana and at least one Small-Leaved Lime Tilia cordata. The north facing cliff face was covered in Maidenhair Spleenwort
Asplenium trichomanes and Hart's Tongue Fern Asplenium scolopendrium which thrive in the cool damp conditions.

The path skirts the top of the wooded valley, with only the background noise of running water. Some areas of native semi-natural woodland remain along the top in a rough mixture with moorland although large areas look like it was planted up with Larch between the wars, which has recently been clear felled, perhaps due to Phytophthora although the evidence of this was lost in the deep blanket of snow. The odd old Ash or Oak tree was left in the middle of these clear fell, too old to be planted with the larch, these were a hark back to a time when large blocks of conifers became a blight in the landscape, acidifying the rivers and reducing the native flora.

The gorge at the meeting of the Afon Hepste and the Afon Mellte.
Significant stands of conifers can be seen on the horizon

With the snow covering much of the flora, we made it relatively quickly to the path leading down the face of the gorge towards the falls. Even from quite a distance we could hear the roaring of the waterfall. The setting of the waterfall is in a deep gorge where the Afon Hepste plunges over a band of resistant gritstone to form Sgwd yr Eira or Fall of Snow, the obvious choice of waterfall to visit in this kind of weather condition. An old drovers track passes behind the falls, the walls of which are covered with bryophytes, Green Spleenwort Asplenium viride and a species of Dryopteris. The track would have witnessed the shepherds moving their flocks to the hills in the summer and back to lower grounds in winter but these are merely ghosts of the past, now its just used by curious walkers and tourists, its previous use consigned to history.

Sgwd yr Eira, the Falls of Snow
Although there were no Dippers in the river there were plenty of Robins Erithacus rubecula about, they seemed drawn to us, hoping a misplaced step would turnover a rock and expose some worms. Most sat attentively in the trees close, never more than a couple of meters away and we wandered about the falls, although occasional it flashed past to skirmish with an intruder. Even after leaving the falls one stuck close for a good 20 minutes, occasionally swooping down to grab an unseen morsel. Up on the higher ground there were very few birds about, most likely due to the snow which has forced them down into the valleys. A pair of Bullfinch Pyrrhula pyrrhula were busy nipping off buds, a single Jay Garrulus glandarius crossed the open ground into a copse of trees. A pair of Red Kites Milvus milvus circled in the fading evening light,.signalling our time to leave this wonderful valley.

An attentive Robin Erithacus rubecula, never far behind us

Saturday, 7 October 2017

The Asters of Prince Edward Point, Ontario

Asters are one of two genera of plant families to bloom in Autumn in temperate North America, they also happen to be one of the harder families to distinguish due to the diversity and similarities shared between the species.

The two books used, and a selection of Aster species.
With a range of different habitats found at the point there's a number of aster species which could be present. Although I'm in no way an expert and I've been slowly keying out (with many wrong answers) some of the species out using 'The Common Asters Species of Southern Ontario' which was lent to me by Sheila, 'Newcomb's Wildflower Guide'. and the brilliant guide by Walter Muma on

One of the most obvious Aster species present at the point is the New England Aster Symphyotrichum novae-angliae. This is mainly due to its intense purple flowers which allow it to be easily identified in the field as no other common aster would look similar.

Symphyotrichum novae-angliae (New England Aster)

As mentioned this species is very obvious and easy to identify due to its large purple flowers. It is often one of the few plants any of the visitors can identify, which may be in part due to its common use as a garden plant. Its leaves, when crushed have a distinct spicy smell which can also be used as an identification feature.

At the point it is often found in the more open areas in full sun, helping to make it even more obvious than many other species.
Symphyotrichum novae-angliae flowers

Leaves of Symphyotrichum urophyllum
Symphyotrichum urophyllum (Arrow-Leaved Aster)

A common aster of woodland edges, I found the specimen photographed at the edge of the lake, under a thicket of prickly ash but it can be seen all over the point, often within the woodland

The leaves of this species are relatively distinctive with alternatively, shallowly toothed leaves and winged petioles.

It's flowers are on upright panicle shaped heads with stiff stems. Its flowers are usually white although they can be pale pink or bluish. the flowers change from having yellow centres to purple centres like most Asters.

Flower head of Symphyotrichum urophyllum

Distinctive dead leaves of
ymphyotrichum lanceolatum.
Symphyotrichum lanceolatum (Panicled Aster)

A very common species which is often found in moist open or lightly forested areas. At the point it could commonly be found close to the swamp or the lake in areas which were more likely to inundated with a little more water.

By the time it is in flower many of its lower leaves have dried and fallen off whilst smaller dead leaves higher up the stem tend to be rather curly. Its flowers are often spread out along the branches in a rather open manner.

Flower of Symphyotrichum lanceolatum 

Symphyotrichum lateriflorum (Calico Aster)

Symphyotrichum lateriflorum growth form

A common, and very easily identifiable aster due to its unusual form. Also known as the starved aster due to this form once you know what it looks like its an easy one to pick out. With its long horizontal spreading branches with its sparse flowers its not the nicest aster to look at.

This species was most often found within the woodland and along the paths and on the edges of the fields where it gets the dappled light it prefers.

Flower head of Symphyotrichum lateriflorum

Symphyotrichum cordifolium leave
Symphyotrichum cordifolium (Heart-Leaved Aster)

Another fairly common species, which was again often found within the woodland at the edge or paths or the woodland edge. It's pale blue flowers are arranged in a dense rounded panicle.

Its jaggedly toothed, heart shaped leaves also help aid identification and are present on the plant throughout the flowering season.

Flowerhead of Symphyotrichum cordifolium 

Symphyotrichum ericoides (Heath Aster)

Probably the commonest aster on the point, this species can be found across the large areas of abandoned fields and drier areas. It gets its name from its small crowded leaves which are similar to Heather Calluna leaves.

The white flowers are small and often overlap each other on the flowering stems which gives this species the alternative name of Many Flowered Aster. Unlike other species its mainly reproduces by runners and roots.

A stand of Symphyotrichum ericoides flowers

Tuesday, 26 September 2017

The Dog Days of Summer, Prince Edward Point Bird Observatory, Ontario

Its been a pretty exciting time at the observatory, between August and the 22nd of September we've been experiencing the dog days of summer. Its definitely turning into a Indian Summer with temperatures hovering around +25°C and with more sunshine than you'd expect at this time of year.

Although the weather hasn't always been settled. On the 7th September a huge front of thunderstorms moved up through Lake Ontario creating the perfect conditions for the formation of waterspouts. I hardly expected to see one let alone the which formed at the front of the storm offshore.

Waterspout over False Duck Island

Dog-Day Cicada, Tibicen canicularis
To me the dog days are characterised by warm lazy days, the constant hum of cicada's and crickets and the disappearance the local swallows, heading south to a warmer climes. The cicada, although obvious to the ear took quite a while  of searching.With one eventually turning up as by-catch in one of the mist nets. The species present at this time of year is the aptly named Dog-Day Cicada Tibicen canicularis, which as suggest is far more often seen than heard.

New England Aster, Symphyotrichum novae-angliae

Late summer is also when the once dry Alvaar comes to life. A sea of yellows and white with the blooming of several species of Aster and goldenrod. One of the most distinctive species is the showy purple flowers of New England Aster Symphyotrichum novae-angliae, A common and unmistakable species, unlike many of the other members of the family which I will detail in a later blog post.

Eastern Milk Snake, Lampropeltis triangulum triangulum
It's still a good time of year to see plenty of reptiles and amphibians. Northern Leopard Frogs Lithobates pipiens are everywhere, making it difficult to avoid stepping on them. Garter Snakes and Northern water snakes often quickly slither off the path but it was the Eastern Milk Snake Lampropeltis triangulum triangulum I was hoping to find. It is an uncommon species in the county, where it is often associated with old barns and meadows. I was lucky enough to find two individuals which were close to the observatory in early August but haven't found any individuals since.

There was still one species of Amphibian which I was also hoping to find. The Blue-Spotted Salamander Ambystoma laterale, a common woodland species which had managed to elude me in the spring. Luckily for me when a group of volunteers came to build a new fence at the observatory, they uncovered one under a piece of cedar rail and brought it to me. Quite an impressive looking animal and the first salamander I've managed to see in any country!

Blue-Spotted Salamander, Ambystoma laterale
Its been a relatively busy month for birds as well. Large numbers of Bobolinks caught in August and early September and arriving with one of these flocks was a less familiar species. A Dickcissel Spiza americana, a species your much more likely to encounter on the prairies. It was caught right towards the end of the bobolink period on the 5th September.

 HY Male Dickcissel, Spiza americana

Other notable species caught included a HY Northern Rough-Winged Swallow Stelgidopteryx serripennis on the 13th August, a AHY American Woodcock Scolopax minor on the 18th, a HY Broad-Winged Hawk Buteo platypterus on the 19th and several Cape-May Warblers Setophaga tigrina between the 22nd and the 29th of August.

Broad-Winged Hawk, Buteo platypterus

Connecticut Warbler, Oporornis agilis
A Connecticut Warbler Oporornis agilis was the first of six caught on the 11th of September. As well as a HY Semipalmated Sandpiper Calidris pusilla, which was caught in the afternoon on the lake shore.

A Clay-Colored Sparrow Spizella pallida was caught on the 14th alongside a Chipping Sparrow Spizella passerina allowing us to see a nice contrast between the two species.

Semipalmated Sandpiper Calidris pusilla

Monarch, Danaus plexippus
It wasn't just birds which are on the move, the final brood of Monarchs Danaus plexippus has hatched out and some are on their way south. Similarly the huge numbers of Green Darners have been somewhat astonishing, with tens of thousands present some evenings and mornings.

Giant Swallowtail, Papilio cresphontes
Plenty of other species of butterfly and dragonflies have also been seen at the point, one of the most impressive species is the Giant Swallowtail Papilio cresphontes, the largest butterfly in Canada. It can regularly be seen laying its eggs on Northern Prickly-Ash Zanthoxylum americanum, where its bird dropping like caterpillars are common or feeding on thistles.

Down close to the lake, plenty of small damselflies are seen flitting from cattail to cattail. Occasionally the much more colourful Twelve-Spotted Skimmer Libellula pulchella wizzes past on its constant search for food. Although a common North American species, its surprisingly colourful, mainly due to its spotted wings which are an uncommon feature on species found in the UK.

Twelve-Spotted Skimmer, Libellula pulchella
All in all its been a good start to the season, with the weather looking warm for a while yet hopefully it won't be long until the colder wind starts to blow and we'll be inundated with migrants and saw-whet owls.

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

Blackpill SSSI, Swansea

Having spent the weekend in Breacon Beacons with friends from France and sadly not being able to follow them onto Mid Wales it was nice to bump into a small patch of vegetated dunes on the edge of Swansea Bay at Blackpill.
Sea Holly Eryngium maritimum dominated dunes at Blackpill beach
Sea Holly, Eryngium maritimum

Although designated as a SSSI due to its importance for hosting internationally important numbers of wading birds they were all way to far away to photograph due to the tide being out, so I stuck around the vegetated dunes to see which species I could find, unsurprisingly there was nothing of too much note but it was nice to see the Sea Holly Eryngium maritimum in flower.

The sea wall was largely covered in Sea Sandwort Honckenya peploides, a common coastal plant and plenty of Rock Samphire Crithmum maritimum. Once a highly prized foraged herb but now sadly out of fashion, probably due to its intense salty, parsley taste but I quite like it.

Sea Sandwort,Honckenya peploides
Where the Marram Grass Ammophila arenaria was most abundant, Sea Spurge Euphorbia paralias was often dotted around and close to the edge of the dunes the delicate pink flowers of Sea Rocket Cakile maritima was abundant.

Sea Rocket, Cakile maritima growing amoung the Marram, Ammophila arenaria
Canadian Fleabane, Conyza canadensis

The sea wall which runs along the entirety of the bay sadly cuts short the majority of the dune habitats which would normally be present and forms an unnatural climax vegetation. This was comprised of a number of non-native species including Canadian Fleabane, Conyza canadensis and Fennel Foeniculum vulgare, another herb I regularly seek out to forage due to its lovely aniseed taste. 

One native species could be seen among all the invaders the small Autumn Hawkbit Scorzoneroides autumnalis.

Autumn Hawkbit, Scorzoneroides autumnalis

Down below the high tide mark were a few islands of vegetation, these were comprised of an endemic species which only originated in the 1870's in Southern Britain. 
Common Cordgrass Spartina anglica is an allotetraploid species derived from the hybrid Spartina × townsendii which came about due to the introduction of Smooth Cordgrass Spartina alterniflora, most likely in bilge water which then hybridised with the native Small Cordgrass Spartina maritima. 

Although at first it was seen as a key species for fighting coastal erosion it then went on to stabilise tidal mudflats, a key problem for wading birds however the species has since had a natural die back of unknown cause has reversed the spread.

An Island of Common Cordgrass, Spartina anglica