Meadow yellow

Meadow yellow
Bulbous Buttercup (Ranunculus bulbosus) in a Devon meadow

Friday, 29 April 2011

Bonky tit!

It’s been a difficult few weeks. Each day around dawn a fluttering and scratching begins against the bedroom window continuing throughout the day. The giant moth-like muted sounds are strangely able to pierce sleep and their irregularity ensures no sustained slumber. It all started over two weeks ago at a different window - The Magnolia branch outside the annexe building provided a convenient platform for a Blue Tit (Parus caeruleus) to seemingly launch an attack on its window reflection. At first we were amused and fascinated by the behaviour assuming that it was searching for spiders and other insects around the window frames. Friends staying in the annexe over following days were the first to suffer from the unwonted early alarm call, but we dismissed it as a passing ornithological whim. The pile of droppings beneath indicated a more zealous prolonged cause. What made it extend its attack on other fenestration foes can only be conjecture, but in the following days the kitchen and my bedroom windows fell under a sustained attack, reminiscent of scenes from Hitchcock’s ‘The Birds’. Finally, and perhaps more understandable, the car side-mirrors were drawn into the illusory battleground of this tiny two-winged bandit. The cumulative sleep deprivation rapidly induced less lovable inclinations to the blue fluff-ball! I began to ponder what I would do if I could get it in my hands. You will be pleased to know that a calmer wife has since found a solution, by covering the window with an externally hanging towel and taking away the bird’s attack trigger.

Apparently the size of an ostrich brain is the size of a pea. So how big can a Blue Tit’s be? How amazing that this tiny accumulation of nervous tissue can trigger such exaggerated behaviour, with such dramatic consequences on my life. The RSPB website ( comments that “there is no apparent reason to what triggers an individual bird suddenly to start this behaviour, and it cannot be predicted how intense it will be and how long it will go on for.” Clearly we were at the start of the breeding season and I can only assume that this particular individual bird was shot with an unusual amount of hormones to fuel such a marathon assault.

Now I’m off for a nap!

Thursday, 14 April 2011

A Stitch ahead of time

What a contrast the woodland and hedgerow flora is compared to last year. In spring 2010 after a protracted winter, all the wild flowers seemed reluctant to get going, and botanists wondered if some species would ever arrive and chase away the snowdrops. This year with such a warm spring, everything seems to be racing ahead of time and I’ve been dashing about trying to catch things before they’ve been and gone. The starlight blooms of Wood Anemones' (Anemone nemorosa) (see image) and sunny displays of Colt’s-foot (Tussilago farfara) are more or less finished locally. In the news there have been stories of Bluebells in flower a good two weeks earlier than normal, mirrored by the first shimmer of a blue blaze in the Pinfold garden. However it was the sight this week of hedgerow bottoms turning creamy white with the early flush of Greater Stitchwort (Stellaria holostea) that for me confirmed the speed of spring this year (see image). This is about a month earlier than last year. There have been many reports that global warming is creating a trend in the UK for earlier springtime. Although we may welcome this ‘bonus’ warmth and sunshine, scientists are concerned about the long term impact on species and whether or not they can adapt quickly enough to such change. One example of the complexity that might arise is whether plant pollinators, such as insects, can adapt their timings (phenology or life-cycle) in parallel with each other. If one depends on the other or they have a mutual reliance, then getting out of ‘synch’ may result in their local decline or extinction. Hegland, et al (2009) found some evidence that the onset of flowering and first appearance of pollinators did occur in parallel as temperature increased, but stressed that other studies had shown some timing mismatches. As climate change really takes a hold we may well find that there are winners and losers in the British countryside, with those able to evolve faster than others.

Hegland, S.J., Nielsen, A., Lazaro, A., Bjerknes, A. and Totland, O. (2009) How does climate warming affect plant-pollinator interactions? Ecology Letters, 12 (2): 184-195

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Corpse flower almost pales into insignificance

We were walking in the Lakes last weekend near Ambleside and took a footpath leading up to Rydal Mount for the second time. This time I was more botanically focussed as we planned an easier stroll to compensate for the previous days strenuous mountain challenge of the ‘Fairfield round’. I noticed from some distance under some trees by a stream what initially looked like old dried bracken stems. But something encouraged me to go over and take a closer look. I was glad that I did, because it was indeed a collection of the parasitic Toothworts (Lathraea squamaria), closely related to the broomrapes. Quite the most ugly and beautiful plants I have seen, emerging from leaf litter like gigantic stout and anaemic caterpillars. I assume its name is derived from the white tooth-like leaves. It is less commonly known as Corpse Flower, maybe due to its deathly pallor or because in the past it was believed to feed off buried bodies – the latter is indeed not too far from the truth as it does tap the roots of their host plant, mainly Hazel and Elm (Rose, 2006), drawing off nutritious high sugar carbohydrates with pad –like suckers. The paleness is due to it having no chlorophyll as it has no need to photosynthesise.

Underground it would appear no less curious, with an extensive network of stems with white fleshy leaves, no longer light dependent – according to Studnika (1981) these much reduced leaves have cavities lined with enzyme-synthesising glands that they may use to repel or absorb small soil organisms - This physiological ability is similar to the mechanism of some carnivorous plants, but appears poorly understood. However Studnika (1981) goes on to suggest an alternative explanation, that “the main work of the glands is to eliminate surplus water....this is essential to enable the plant to absorb constantly new supplies of most plants water is evaporated from the stomata, but plants growing in a very damp atmosphere often eliminate water in drops by means of glands like the Toothwort.”

It would appear that this plant is worthy of further research.

Rose,F (2006) The Wild Flower Key – How to identify wild flowers trees and shrubs in Britain and Ireland. London: Penguin Books Ltd

Studnika, M (1981) The problem of carnivory in the Common Toothwort (Lathraea squamaria). Carnivorous Plant Newsletter []