Sloe Picking down a Memory Lane

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Polebrook Airfield Then

Memories of childhood wanderings were brought back vividly the weekend before last as my sisters, niece and little great-niece headed out on a sloe-and-blackberry foraging foray around the old Polebrook Airfield in east Northamptonshire. Once a flat, open site used for agriculture, the site was commissioned for use by the RAF and then used by the US Airforce as a base for bomber aircraft during World War II. After the war ended it was decommissioned by the Air Ministry and sold back to the adjacent Ashton Estate. Most of the buildings were removed from the site’s surface, but below ground many concrete shelters and chambers remained, rendering it unfeasible to restore it back to use as agricultural land. The woodland of Ashton Wold was already a Private Nature Reserve and separated from the old Airfield only by a narrow country road, so their owner took the opportunity to leave it alone as a protective buffer zone between the Nature Reserve and the surrounding farmed land, interested to see what happened when nature was allowed to venture back in.

1960s

Way back in the mid to late 60s we lived at Ashton Wold and in my early double-figure days, I spent hours wandering around the woods and fields and sometimes ventured over to the Airfield. Then it was unfenced, easily accessed and without the warning signs that might pepper such a place nowadays. It was doubtless a potentially hazardous place for people, strewn with all kinds of crumbling, part-demolished buildings and underground shelters half-hidden by long grass and brambles. There was always the sense that you shouldn’t really be there, which of course added to its appeal. At that time I had no real idea about the site’s history or plans for its future. But I did know that in the Spring I could find Great-Crested Newts swimming in what I thought of as water-filled ‘tanks’, probably old concrete foundations or something similar, then later Lapwings (or Peewits as we knew them) nested here; hunting for their hidden ground-level nests is how I learned that the parent bird would sometimes feign an injury to try to draw you away from a nest. There were wildflowers too and I’m sure a great deal that passed me by in this burgeoning sanctuary.

AND NOW

The site now is almost, but to us, never completely unrecognisable. Part of the site is used by a Warehousing Company, part is once more farmed and most importantly the Northern edge of the site is now also designated as a Private Nature Reserve. A Bioblitz there, carried out by the Northamptonshire Biodiversity Records Centre in August 2015, resulted in an impressive species count that included 40 species that have a notable or protected status at National level, including 17 birds, 2 bats, 7 moths, 3 butterflies, 1 amphibian, 9 lichens and 1 moss species.

Today we were there to gather sloes and blackberries, but needless to say, even now on a cool, damp and intermittently sunny Autumn day, there was so much more to see it was impossible to keep focussed.

Blackberries and red berries of Black Bryony

Wide mown grass paths now crisscross areas of Hawthorn and Blackthorn scrub bound up with tangles of brambles and wild rose briars that are interspersed with rough grassland.

There were always Teasels here and it’s good to see them thriving still. It’s a native plant and an important source of summer nectar and pollen for insects – Bumblebees love the flowers and then in the autumn the distinctive prickly dried heads hold seed that is sought by birds, particularly Goldfinches.

Amongst the large patches of rough scrubby grass there were still a few flowers to be found, a sprinkle of purple thistles and a few plants of Common Centaury. The latter plant only fully opens its flowers in the sun, which was only intermittently shining on us, so I didn’t get to see them out unfortunately.

There are lengths of old concrete aircraft runways or service roads still in place, but now colonised by moss enriched by decomposed fallen leaves, they are concealed beneath a growing medium sufficiently deep for plants adapted to dry conditions to establish. In one such place we came across a spreading colony of Great Mullein, whose thick silver-grey felted leaves are perfectly adapted to potentially dry conditions.

Great Mullein-Verbascum thapsus

One plant stood out from the crowd as it had produced the most enormous leaves I’ve ever seen on this species. it was amazing and must have sprung from a seed that had fallen in an especially fertile spot.

It’s downy leaves, additionally warmed by sunshine were attracting insects too and must have made a cosy place for these Spotted Craneflies to couple-up.

Mating Spotted Craneflies

Flies paused to rest there too; I managed to catch a bright shiny Bluebottle and a golden-brown, or officially Orange Muscid Fly basking in a spell of warm sunshine.

Some Blackthorn looks old, and has grown into small spreading trees. Their brittle branches and tangles of twigs are mostly leafless and bear sparse fruits, but they are encrusted beautifully with lichen.

We wandered through the maturing woodland where the trees are mainly Ash and Oak with some Silver Birch. The ground beneath the trees is strewn only with fallen branches; it may be kept clear as there are numerous deep rectangular holes, their covers moved to the side and covered with moss. Quite hazardous if you don’t watch where you’re going. There are still intact brick and concrete-built shelters here too, their roofs are now camouflaged by vegetation, but the entrances are clear and accessible and it would seem watertight.

On a moss-covered fallen log, tiny mushrooms with pretty mauve caps were growing. I tried to persuade my 3 year old great-niece that they were stools for fairies or pixies, but she didn’t believe me! She just wanted to walk along the log! I don’t know the name, but have been advised it’s probably a species of Marasmius, commonly known as ‘parachute mushrooms’ because of the ribbed and domed shape of their caps.

We headed out of the woods and back onto safer ground to resume our berry hunt. Many were tantalising beyond our reach, like these that hung high above a twining rope of heavily-berried Black Bryony.

Beyond us, but all the better for small birds like this Blue Tit – one of a party that were travelling around, keeping up a companionable dialogue of contact as they foraged.

We passed by a huge spread of Knapweed, entirely gone to seed now, but it must have been a lovely sight back in the late summer.

Clusters of ‘keys’ dangle from Ash trees

Intriguingly a small iron-framed wooden bench seat has been set beneath an oak tree.

A rather beautiful yellow-green spider was finding the sun-warmed metal much to its liking. My picture isn’t great, but I think it may be a Green Huntsman Spider.

 

We reached the high dense Blackthorn hedge that forms an effective boundary with the road. There were sloes to be found here, but there distribution was a bit erratic; some bushes had a lot, many had few or even none at all.

A wild rose using the hedge for support is decorated with ferny-mossy Robin’s Pincushions, also known as the Bedeguar Gall. The familiar fibrous growths are the plant’s reaction to being chosen to host the larvae of a tiny gall wasp, Dipoloepis rosae.

Heading back I found clumps of aromatic Wild Basil in the long grass; this plant is a member of the Deadnettle family

and a little later I came across a close relative, a nice patch of White Deadnettle, whose leaves remind me of stinging nettles.

A lovely family wander which brought back happy memories for my sisters and me that I hope may be recalled and even better, relived by our children and grandchildren in another fifty years!

 

Party Season

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Party season has arrived in the woodlands once more: the time when many of the more sociable and colourful of our smaller bird species temporarily put aside territorial squabbles, joining together to form a foraging cooperative and sweep through the trees en masse on unified hunts for prey. Variously referred to as ‘mixed-species feeding flocks’, ‘mixed hunting parties’ or less formally a ‘bird wave’, all describe the structure and purpose of these entities, but none can convey the vibrant energy that accompanies the birds on their whirlwind woodland tours.

September 26th

Bursting out from the woods, scattering into all parts of the Wych Elm like popping corn, excited Blue Tits immediately begin picking their way around the leafy twigs. There are a quite lot of them, too tricky to count accurately as they are so mobile. Blue Tits are numerous here and you rarely have to go far to see or hear one or more, so this could well be several local neighbouring families that have joined forces.

Foraging party member-Blue Tit

Seconds behind them dainty Long-tailed Tits appear, much gentler in their approach but then suddenly they’re everywhere, there must have been at least 12, maybe more.

Foraging party member- Long-tailed Tit

I realise I’m being treated to a close-up, eye-level view of a travelling foraging party! I wish I could better convey the excitement and energy transmitted by these little birds that I felt even through my double-glazed kitchen window, it’s quite magical. I’d have been happy with just the Blue and Long-tailed Tits, but then there are Great Tits too;  only three that I can see, one of which is a smartly feathered juvenile, similarly coloured to the adults that arrived with it but not as brightly yellow. Again, probably a family.

Foraging party member- Great Tit

Birds continue to arrive, more Blue Tits, long-tailed Tits and then two Coal Tits, one of which perched on the end of a leafy twig and launched itself at the window, fluttering madly as it inspected its corners and joints for hiding insects or spiders.

Foraging party member-Coal Tit

Then just as I thought the last of the party members had arrived there are two Goldcrests. They are tricky to focus on as one seems to be chasing the other at speed through the tree branches. They may be our tiniest birds, but they’re quite feisty.

Most of the birds stay within the cover of the trees, but a few more adventurous ones venture over to check out parts of the building too. I already mentioned the Coal Tit coming to my window, but others were exploring the metal fire escape, which permanently in shade tends to have a coating of algae and lichens.

Blue and Long-tailed Tits tend to be the bravest, and where one bird ventures others follow to see what they’ve found, including a curious Goldcrest. Slightly below the level of my windows, I got to see the birds from some interesting angles,

FORAGING FLOCKS

These travelling foraging flocks typically have a core species around which others gather, typically Tits. Here I’m sure that Blue Tits are the central characters as well as being their most numerous members. They seem to lead or guide the flock and so are the first to arrive in a chosen foraging spot when they’re on the move. Other species accompanying or following them are known as attendants and they tend to join the foraging flock only when it enters their territory. Attendants may be other insectivores such as Nuthatches, Treecreepers and sometimes Woodpeckers.

Blue Tit in Wych Elm – leaves still covered with greenfly

The formation of mixed-species flocks is thought to benefit individuals by reducing the risk of predation; the more pairs of eyes that can spot predators such as Sparrowhawks and raise an alarm the better. On the same principal, it’s likely that their numbers and variety of feeding methods also increases foraging efficiency, the more pairs of eyes seeking insects the greater the chances of finding them. Differing sizes and methods of feeding allows the different species to forage in close proximity without conflict.

 

 

 

 

 

Wild and Windy on West Shore

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August 19th

On Sunday, the North Wales Wildlife Trust held their annual August “Go Wild” event at  Llandudno’s West Shore. From the outset a powerful wind brought a truly Wild element to the proceedings, but the sun shone, it wasn’t cold and better still, it didn’t rain! And we’re a hardy and resourceful lot here in North Wales, so marquees, stalls and games were battened down and sheltered behind a windbreak of cars, big NWWT vans & the minibus all parked bumper to bumper, Wild West Wagon style. All well worth the effort as it turned out to be a really successful and enjoyable day, well-attended by a good number of interested and enthusiastic people of all ages.

Having volunteered to guide a Wildlife Wander on the day I’d done an advance recce on Thursday afternoon of the route I had in mind to get an idea of what we might see  and to take photographs that I wouldn’t have chance to do out with a group of people. It was windy then, but even more so on Sunday, so seeking some shelter from it, and in consideration of some young, tiny but very game wanderers we made a bit of a deviation from the original plan, but happily still managed to see most of the species of wildflowers I’d noted on Thursday, plus a couple I didn’t.

August 15th

Sunday’s wander would set out from our pitch next to the Children’s Playground on the Promenade, but at just past two o’clock today, although it was sunny, a strong wind was blowing and as it’s very open and exposed here I started further down, closer to where the dunes begin. A well-used path starts from Trinity Crescent, passes behind the buildings on the site of the Miniature Railway and travels in a fairly straight line to join the Coast Path through an open, grassy area.

On first impressions, this may appear to be an unkempt wasteland but a lot of wildlife loves such habitat and it’s always well worth closer inspection. This particular patch is home to a great variety of wildflowers, which then attracts insects and if you’re lucky, birds too.

Common Mallow-Malva sylvestris-Hocysen

Some wildflowers are tall and so abundant that you can’t fail to notice them, like Common Mallow. It’s currently in full bloom and full of pretty pink-purple flowers  hoping to catch the attention of any passing pollinators.

Between stands of Mallow there’s less showy Wild Carrot, largely finished flowering now and setting seed. This is one plant that is definitely in its favoured habitat- rough grassland, on chalky soil and by the sea. It’s a white umbellifer that’s more distinctive than most, as in the centre of the flowerhead is usually a single red-purple flower which is thought to mimic a fly that then attracts insects to assist pollination. After flowering the long umbels fold upwards and inwards to contain the seeds in a sort of cage.

Wild Carrot-Daucus carota-Moron y Maes

I saw an insect on a flowerhead and tried to photograph it, but as you can see the wind was blowing it all over the place and I couldn’t focus on it properly – when I checked the photograph later I saw it was a Sawfly – Rhogogaster viridis. 

Ragwort-Senecio jacobaea-Creulys lago

 

There’s a good number of Ragwort plants, many of which were being visited by bees. Most of those I saw were Buff-tailed Bumblebees; big and strong enough to fly between plants on a windy day, although even they weren’t going far.

I checked a lot of plants here looking for the black and yellow caterpillars of the Cinnabar Moth-Tyria jacobeaea, but there were none that were obvious.

 

 

Another abundant flowering plant is Soapwort, which has been left undisturbed and has formed some impressively large patches. It’s in full bloom now and a mass of pretty sugar-pink flowers.

Soapwort-Saponaria officinalis

Bees seem to like these flowers too.

 

The green leaves and stems of Soapwort were once crushed and boiled in water to make a lathery liquid that was widely used to wash wool and woollen cloth. For that reason it was often grown in fields and gardens close to woollen mills, and the plants growing in the wild today are often found close to places where wool was once woven into cloth.  

 

Across the grass at the far end, in front of the Blue Café and next to the entrance to the Miniature Railway is a big tangled bramble bush and my attention was attracted there as a cheerfully noisy flock of birds flew onto it. They were Starlings, most, or maybe all of which I think were juvenile birds, their plumage largely brown with black breast and underparts black with clear white spots.

Common Starling-Sturnus vulgaris-Drudwen

They were clearly enjoying feasting on ripe blackberries.

The path leading to the sea is open and exposed to the elements, so plants need to be tough to succeed here. Mugwort is one that both survives and thrives here, it’s not an especially attractive plant to look at, but it’s well adapted to its environment and it also produces aromatic oils, a device to protect itself from being eaten by grazing animals. On Sunday, the general consensus of those that rubbed leaves and tested it was that’s it’s scent is not particularly pleasant, but then it is supposed to repel midges, which may be handy to know….

Mugwort-Artemisia vulgaris

Golden yellow Ragwort and purple Greater Knapweed – the classic colours of late summer and early autumn.

In contrast to the Mugwort, Greater Knapweed is tough and lovely to look at – its open ripe seedheads are as pretty as the flowers.

Greater Knapweed-Centaurea scabiosa

Restharrow

 

In the grass there was Cat’s-ear Hypochaeris glabra and what was possibly a small  hawkbit – they’re tricky to separate at the best of times. Also small amounts of a white-flowered Common Storksbill, some Restharrow, White Clover, Pale Flax and the odd Dandelion or two were still to be found with flowers.

 

Where our path met the Coast Path was a lovely spreading patch of the yellow-flowered Ribbed Melilot.

Known as a plant of grassy places and waste ground, it seems to be perfectly happy growing in this sandy stony spot close to the sea.

Ribbed Melilot – Melilotus officinalis

A more common and familiar plant is the Sea Mayweed, a plant of sand and shingle, it can and does pop up in a variety places near to the sea if a seed finds a spot it likes.

At this end of the path there’s a mass of Sea Buckthorn. This is a thorny shrub with silvery stems and grey-green leaves. It’s flowers are tiny and green and appear before the leaves in the Spring, but now it is now laden with heavy crops of bright orange berries.

 From here the path, which is also a section of the Wales Coast Path, heads towards the dunes and Deganwy. The views ahead and across the sea to Anglesey and Puffin Island were surprisingly clear today, although there were rainclouds hanging over Snowdonia.

The wind had driven people trying to enjoy a day on the beach into the shelter of the dunes, some camped on the path, so I made a detour around them along the beach.

A wind-ruffled Crow foraged among the pebbles on the sea edge

The strandline was strewn with piles of long tangled strands of seaweed: looking a bit like piles of brown spaghetti, this is Thongweed. If I’d been here spending a leisurely afternoon on the beach I would have had to collect some and plait it. In places it was mixed with other seaweeds that had also been wrenched away from their moorings on the submerged rocks.

Flitting around the drying seaweed there were a lot of little flies, perhaps unsurprisingly commonly known as Kelp or Seaweed Flies.

I photographed a pile of mixed seaweeds which includes Thong Weed, Egg Wrack (the one with big bubbles), Bladderwrack (with smaller bubbles) and some of the reddy-pink Polysiphonia algae that is a parasite of Bladderwrack.

Reaching the stone seabreak I rejoined the dunes, passing a big clump of Sea Rocket, the only one of our seashore plants to have lilac-coloured flowers.

Sea Rocket-Cakile maritima

 

I love this viewpoint and find it difficult to resist stopping here, and not just for the view: it’s furnished with a semi-circle of cut-stone slabs with lovely tactile polished tops, but it was too windy to hang about for long today. I did stop long enough to photograph the spikily beautiful large Sea Holly plant growing on the edge of the dune below.

Sea Holly-Eryngium maritimum

Onwards through the dunes the path was slightly sheltered from the wind, although you can see how the bordering Marram grass was being pressed almost flat against the dune and cliff sides.

Marram grass has ripe, or ripening seedheads now held on tall stems that sway stiffly in the wind. The view is quite clear over to Anglesey.

Marram – Ammophila arenaria

More Sea Holly and a very large clump of Sea Mayweed are flourishing in a sheltered spot.

The dunes end and there opens up the amazing view of the iconic Vadre at Deganwy and the mountains on the far side of the Conwy Estuary.

On the pathside Cat’s Ear is flowering and there is still quite a bit of Bird’s-foot Trefoil available to bees and butterflies, although all I saw today was a single Common Blue.

Whilst photographing the Cat’s Ear I noticed an insect scuttling about and now and then entering holes made in the sand. Long and black, with a purplish iridescence to its wings and a very narrow ‘waist’, so likely a sand wasp, but I don’t know the species.

More Sea Rocket, this time growing amongst the stones of the rip-rap. There were bumblebees nectaring on the windswept flowers.

On the cliff side of the path there’s more Bird’s-foot Trefoil and quite a lot of Restharrow still flowering.

 

On the cliffside itself, there’s an impressive spread of Rock Samphire. This is our most distinctive yellow-flowered umbellifer and the only one with fleshy leaves. It grows only by the sea.

 

 

Rock Samphire-Crithmum maritimum

And more Sea Mayweed, almost buried by sand.

The path continues to curve around the bay towards Deganwy, but this is where I turned around to walk back.

This point on the path is where I first saw the shrubby plant intriguingly named the Duke of Argyll’s Tea Plant. This member of the nightshade family with small purple flowers is not at all a showy plant, but it does have an interesting history.

The story goes that Archibald Campbell, the 3rd Duke of Argyll received this plant, Lycium barbarum together with a tea plant, Camellia sinensis from China in the 1730s. Unfortunately their labels got mixed up, so it was grown under the wrong name in his Middlesex garden and, presumably when the mistake came to light, it subsequently became known as the Duke of Argyll’s Tea Tree or Tea Plant. (From A Dictionary of English Plant Names by Geoffrey Grigson, London 1973.) 

 

The plant has been used in Britain since the 18th century for hedging, especially in coastal districts. Its red berries are attractive to a wide variety of British birds.

 

 

This view back along the path towards the Great Orme is wide and impressive and even better today as now the wind was behind me and the sun at a better angle to light the photograph! I retraced my steps a short way before taking the marked Public Footpath up the cliff, where it continues along the top of the cliff on the edge of the golf course.

Amongst the grass where the path begins there was a pretty patch of Eyebright,

Eyebright-Euphrasia nemorosa

close by there was Wild Thyme, a smallish umbellifer I’m not sure about and one remaining flower on a Goat’s-beard plant.

mmm

And, at last – a Ragwort plant with Cinnabar Moth caterpillars!

The continuing path is narrow and leads through gorse, taking a brief rest from flowering now, which is taller than me. A prickly path, but well sheltered from the wind and very peaceful.

 

In parts gorse gives way to equally prickly brambles, some of which are reaching long stems out across the path.

Fruits are developing, a few of them already ripened into blackberries.

This feels like a ‘secret’ path and you never know what treasures you might discover here. In a sunny spot between the banks of brambles, two Gatekeeper butterflies were chasing one another, then settled to bask on leaves. Nearby they were joined by a big Drone Fly.

There are a surprising number of wildflowers to be found along here; still with some flowers there was Wood Sage

Wood Sage-Teucrium scorodonia

and Yarrow, which was attracting small black flies, at least one pair of which were mating.

With little room for manoeuvre a large Toadflax plant, grown tall and leggy, had leaned out across the track

Common Toadflax – Linaria vulgaris

it was full of flowers and in this sheltered spot was being investigated by a bumblebee.

Another plant with mauvy-blue flowers had also grown long and straggly and was leaning out over the path searching for light – I thought at first it was Michaelmas Daisy, but the flowers’ centres were blue, not yellow – I had to wait till Sunday to be pointed in the right direction to identify it after seeing it again then!

There’s quite a bit of Herb Robert here too, there are still a few flowers but most have finished and the beaked seedheads show the plant to be one of the cranesbills. Even in this sheltered spot plants still get showered with sand.

Herb Robert-Geranium robertianum

As well as Blackberry brambles there are also Dewberries. These fruits are similar to blackberries but the segments are bigger and they are covered with a bloom, a bit like a plum is.

The path emerges back out onto the top of the dunes where the vegetation is dominated by Marram, brambles and a lot more Duke of Argyll’s Tea Plant.

I found a plant that shows off the leaves and flowers quite nicely.

Duke of Argyll’s Tea Plant- Lycium barbarum

There was a little more Ragwort here that was being visited by a Meadow Brown Butterfly.

At this point you can either take a path that leads back down through the dunes to the beach or carry on along the open path around the golf course. I took the latter, hoping to find a few more wildflowers to add to my list.

Apart from a bit of Traveller’s Joy amongst Marram and brambles, there wasn’t much to see that was still in flower, but I did find a small amount of Lady’s Bedstraw, a single Bloody Cranesbill flower, and a few Harebells to finish off with.

On Sunday, as I already mentioned we took a slightly different route to avoid the wind, but we did see most of the wildflowers that I’ve photographed or named above, which totals to some 40 or more species, and added a couple more. We also found lots of ripe Dewberries and a Cinnabar moth caterpillar on some Ragwort, saw a few bumblebees, but didn’t see a single butterfly.

Pellitory-of-the-Wall

One wildflower that I should have recognised on the day but that was growing in an unexpected place so had become long and straggly (my excuse!) was Pellitory-of-the-Wall.

And there was a lot  more of the blue-flowered ‘mystery’ plant from Thursday’s walk, which turns out to be a rather rare plant in the UK known as Blue Lettuce, or Russian Blue Sowthistle – Lactuca tatarica. I didn’t have time to take good photographs as the group were moving on, but fortunately the one below was good enough for a friend who had seen the plant here herself and researched it, to give me a clue! She later kindly forwarded me the following info from the UKwildflowers website, which is a direct quote:

Blue Lettuce-Lactuca tatarica

Known at this site from at least 1963, this introduced plant is also known as Russian Blue Sowthistle. It grows very close to the shore in dunes not far from a car park and is well established now on nearby cliffs. Flowering in late summer it provides an unusual display of many blue/purple flower heads.
L. tatarica is known from very few separate sites throughout England, the Isle of man and the Scillies. This appears to be its only site in Wales, there is none to be found in Scotland and only one site in western Ireland. 

 

 

Before this Blackthorn Winter

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Just in case you hadn’t noticed, we are currently experiencing the aforementioned Blackthorn Winter! At least we are in North Wales where the past week or so has been cold, some days extremely windy and we’ve been doused with heavy showers of cold rain and hail. I’m glad I got out for a couple of lovely walks to see some of the newly emerged wildlife before the weather changed. Before getting onto the walks and staying with the Blackthorn theme, I wanted to share this photograph that I took from my kitchen window. This was the first Spring sighting I had of a female Blackcap checking for anything edible on Blackthorn blossom. I have no way of knowing if this is the one that stayed with us over winter or a newly arrived migrant, but either way she brightened up a dull morning.

At this time of year I can’t imagine there being a better place to walk than in woodland, where so much is happening everywhere you look.

March 19th-30th Bryn Euryn Woodland Path

I didn’t have to walk far before starting to see hoverflies; lots of bright shiny new ones, some seeking pollen and nectar, others basking on leaves soaking up the sunshine. There were a few Bumblebees about, big Red-tailed and Buff-tailed queens mainly, flying low over the undergrowth, some maybe seeking nest sites and others beginning to stock theirs with provisions for the next generation of working daughters.

 

I’d forgotten this tree was a lovely blossoming one; there were a few Bumbles visiting it but none stayed still for long enough for me to see what they were. 

Cherry Laurel was still in full bloom around the middle of the month but going over towards its end.

Greater Stitchwort is one of my favourite Spring flowers,the small starry flowers are the perfect size for the smaller hoverflies and they seem to suit the furry little Bee-flies too – they don’t have to land on flowers, they simply hover in front of them and use their long fixed proboscis to suck up nectar.

 

There were a good number of small black hoverflies about too; in the sunlight you can see the silver-grey markings on their long bodies through their dark wings. They were a species of Platycheirus, perhaps Platycheirus albimanus, or White-footed Hoverfly

 

I found Wood Anemones

and a few Bluebells have already opened

If you’re a fairly regular birdwatcher then you most likely know that when you hear birdsong or sounds that you don’t recognise, they’re very likely to be coming from a Great Tit! Apart from their recognised ‘teacher-teacher‘ song they have a whole repertoire of other whistles and calls but I still often find myself caught out, scanning branches looking for the source of unrecognised calls and finding once again it’s yet another.  It happened today, it took me a while to locate this trickster up in a tangle of twigs but when I did he gave me a look then turned his back and carried on singing.

His black markings are particularly strongly, especially around his rump and I’m sure I’ve photographed him this past winter from my kitchen window; he’s quite distinctive and I’d say within range. 

As I stood watching and listening to him I heard another, louder whistling call that I hadn’t heard in a long while, but recognised as the calls of a Nuthatch. It sounded close by but I’m not the best at pinpointing where bird sounds are coming from so I edged slowly along the path trying to stay behind trees where possible hoping to see movement. I could hardly believe my luck when he flew onto a tree branch leaning at almost a 90° angle and just high enough above me to see most of him. He put on a wonderful performance, moving first to stage right, lifting his head and stretching his neck skywards, then opening his beak wide and putting his whole self into his song. He repeated this several times, then stopped, had a little rummage about then turned, moved to stage left and repeated the act facing the other direction. I felt very privileged to be his audience and thanked him as he flew off down into the inaccessible lower slope of the woodland.

 

This all took place close to the boundary with the open field beyond it, so I looked over as I always do, hoping one day they’ll be something there to see, but again not today and the view was obscured by mist too.

There were more wildflowers to see alongside the path though, a few blooms of dainty Wood Sorrel and Common Dog Violets.

 

WOODLAND TRAIL

Mid month the Blackthorn on this part of the trail was still in bloom, Gorse was fully out as was the pink flowering currant.

I have learnt to approach this area, one of my wildlife ‘hotspots’ with care as you never know what might be there. Again, mid-month I saw this lovely Long-tailed Tit with a large fluffy white feather in its bill, so nest building must have already reached the final lining stage. I guess she may be sitting on eggs by now. 

This is a spot favoured by beautiful Comma butterflies too and moving on from watching the Long-tailed Tit, I disturbed one from its basking on the bare ground of the track. It flew around for a while, had a bit of a scuffle with another that appeared from the other direction, then settled on the Blackthorn to resume his sunbathing.

There were quite a few hoverflies feasting on the blossoms too, mainly yellow and black ones which are species of Syrphus, One or two drone flies and more of the little Platycheirus.

 

The next-door Gorse had a few visitors too, but the richly coloured and scented flowers never seem to attract as many insects as I think it should.

 

Down below, I watched one Hoverfly on the bare earth seemingly sucking up something- minerals or maybe just moisture? Others rested basking on leaves soaking up warmth.

 

And every dandelion flower had at least one diner.

 

New Hazel leaves are bright fresh green and still soft and wrinkled.

I found a little bit of Herb Robert and new leaves of Wild Strawberry

 

There’s a ‘shortcut’ up to the lower meadow and at its junction with the Woodland Trail white Sweet Violets grow. The plants have spread well over the past few years and although their leaves and flowers tend to get splashed with mud they are still a pretty sight.

There are Common Dog Violets nearby too

 

and also the subtly different Early Dog Violet

At the top of this steeply sloping track I heard a Robin singing and located him in a Blackthorn that has become a small tree; its blossom is still mostly in bud. This area on the corner of the open meadow is definitely a Robin territory and is well guarded. Last time I passed by there were two birds, one either side of the track and one loudly expressed their disapproval at my intrusion.

 

The ‘official’ entrance to the meadow, gained via the steps is close by in the opposite corner and I walked around to see the progress of the Cherry Plum tree. There were still a few blossoms, but now the leaves are well grown and a beautiful fresh green.

Gorse on the field edge is smothered in golden blossom, of course I had to walk over to it for my ‘fix’ of delicious coconutty perfume. I wish we were equipped with a scent recall sense!There was  more to come along the Summit Trail, but to finish here, the first of the Cowslip flowers had appeared, but still bent over shyly hiding their tiny faces.

A Blackthorn Winter

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Blackthorn was already blossoming on bushes in sheltered spots at the beginning of this month; probably triggered by the spell of warm sunny days we had back then before winter blew back in with the current icy winds.

March 2nd – Bryn Euryn

More usually, the blossom of the Blackthorn appears later in March and early April, coinciding with the time when in the not-so-distant past we would have half-expected to have been chilled by cold winds blowing in from the north and north-east. By then hedges and thickets of the dense thorny shrub would be smothered in frothy pure white blossom, looking very much like a covering of snow, and so a cold Spring became traditionally know as a Blackthorn Winter.

Native throughout the British Isles, Blackthorn most often grows to be a large shrub that spreads by suckers to form dense hedges or thickets up to 13′ (4m) high, but it may occasionally makes a small tree. These dense thorny growths make virtually impenetrable barriers keeping humans and grazing animals at bay providing valuable protection for plants growing beneath it and a safe haven for birds that nest amongst its branches. It grows in a variety of places; on the edge of scrub woodlands, in hedges and locally here extensively at the top of Bryn Euryn and the Little Orme.

During the winter when the leaves have fallen you can see better the dense criss-crossed knobbly network of dark twig, although many are covered with layers of velvety lichens and festooned with Reindeer Moss.

FLOWERS

The flowers appear in a dense mass, almost hiding the thorny twigs, in early Spring before the leaves break from their buds. Individual flowers are small, about ½” (60cm) across; they are pure white have five petals and central stamens tipped with gold.

Starwort was an alternative name for Blackthorn blossoms, which exactly describes their appearance. 

IMPORTANCE TO INSECTS

The flowers are pollinated by a variety of insects that take the nectar and pollen in early Spring. Its foliage is a food plant for the caterpillars of many moths, including the Lackey, Magpie, Common Emerald, Small Eggar, Swallow-tailed and Yellow-tailed. It is also used by the Black and Brown Hairstreak butterflies.

LEAVES

The leaves are small and alternate, a dull green above and hairy beneath.

FRUIT

The fruit of the Blackthorn is of course the Sloe, round in shape and purplish-black in colour with a grey bloom. They are not good to eat – a raw Sloe is so tart and sour it makes your tongue go numb and your teeth feel ‘furry’.  

It’s thought that the Blackthorn may be one of the parents of the damson and other domestic plums and its fruits have long been used to infuse gin to produce Sloe Gin, which to do properly traditionally involves waiting for the fruits to be ‘frosted’ before picking. These days freezing weather in late autumn isn’t a given, so we stick ours in the freezer for a while instead. Sloes are also sometimes mixed with Elderberries in the making of Elderberry wine, which when served hot makes a soothing and comforting remedy for a bad cold.

OTHER USES

The juice from Sloes also makes an indelible ink and the whole fruit yields a strong red dye.

If you scrape the bark from Blackthorn it shows orange beneath it, but the sapwood is pale yellow and the heartwood is brown. Being more of a shrub than a tree the trunks and branches don’t reach more than a few centimetres in diameter, but the wood is hard and tough and polishes well. In furniture making its use was for decorative inlays and marquetry work. More practically its durability made it useful for making the teeth of hay-rakes and it has long been used for cutting as walking sticks. Blackthorn is also the traditional wood used for the making of the Irish shillelagh, or cudgel.

FOLKLORE

Blackthorn is depicted in many fairy tales throughout Europe as a tree of ill omen. Called Straif in the Ogham, this tree has the most sinister reputation in Celtic tree lore.

Blackthorn is the tree traditionally associated with Black Magic. Witches used walking sticks made from Blackthorn, which was known as a ‘black rod’ (no association with the Parliamentary Black Rod). They also allegedly used the long thorns for sticking into wax effigies of their enemies in order to cause them pain and wreak their revenge.

 

 

 

 

 

A Cosmopolitan Woodland

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Enjoying the sunshine of this glorious morning, a bright-eyed Dunnock sat on a platform of leaves of the Laurel hedge preening and soaking up the warmth.

Woodland Path

The sight of the sunbathing Dunnock sparked the idea of a theme for this morning’s walk, or rather the Laurel did. Bryn Euryn is almost an island, virtually surrounded by houses and running the length of the side I often begin my walks, is the busy A55 North Wales Expressway. Its summit was once the site of an ancient Hill Fort, where a Trig Point now stands. There are ruins of an old manor house and exposed rock cliffs around a field next to the car park mark the site of an old quarry. Opposite the car park there’s a large area of land given over to allotments. This long-reaching proximity of people and the plantings in their gardens, has inevitably led to the presence of trees, shrubs and flowers that wouldn’t be there naturally. Today I thought I’d make a point of looking out for some of the more obvious ones amongst the natives.

 

Cherry Laurel- Prunus laurocerasus

There’s quite a lot of Laurel growing in this particular spot on Bryn Euryn, doubtless planted when a grand house occupied the site now replaced with our small development of flats. This is Cherry Laurel, introduced from south-east Europe in 1547 and quickly popularised for creating ornamental hedges. Apart from the Rhododendron, it is the most common introduced evergreen in Britain. It’s beginning to flower here now: the flowerheads stand erect  like candles and are made up of small creamy-white flowers that smell a bit like marzipan.

Twining into the Laurel, reaching across the path is Honeysuckle, which is a true native; its leaves already almost fully grown.

Honeysuckle-Lonicera

Greater Periwinkle-Vinca major

On the edge of the track and scrambling up the woodland slope deep blue Greater Periwinkle is flowering. Evergreen under-shrubs native to Europe, north-west Africa and southern Asia, this would most likely have been planted here originally, but the Periwinkles are long enough established and widespread in the wild to be included in wildflower books, often listed as garden escapes.

A Song Thrush was singing its energetic and joyous song rising up  from somewhere on the steep slope below. eating Ivy berries, A Great Tit called out its signature ‘teacher-teacher’, loud and clear. Blue Tits were all around me, calling to one another as they flitted about investigating shrubs and trees in their endless quest to find food. I caught a glimpse of one above my head; it was pure luck that I caught one holding a twig in its claw while it pecked at a leaf bud. The marks above its head are insects, not specks on my lens!

Blackbirds were rustling around in thick Ivy, grabbing berries.

Another shrubby archway reaches over the path formed by more Laurel and Berberis, which is just beginning to flower. Berberis, or Barberry, is another shrub familiar in gardens. I also spotted a few small Mahonia plants along the way, all bearing flowers.

On a Polypody fern frond sat a bright shiny new hoverfly, gleaming bronze in the bright light. Two Greenbottle flies chose an Ivy leaf to sunbathe upon.

Towering over the greenery, bare trees, their branches silvery against the intensely blue sky, remind that there is still a while to go before the true Spring arrives.

Grey Squirrels have been active throughout this mild winter; there have been very few days when I haven’t seen at least one from my windows. I’m not a fan of this introduced species  because of their dominance over our native Reds and the  tremendous amount of damage they do to our woodland trees. I have to remind myself they have no natural enemies, it’s not their fault they’re here and they’re just trying to stay alive; how are they supposed to know better?

Like most people, I’m sure, I barely go a day without seeing a Wood Pigeon which are common and numerous just about everywhere in Great Britain. They’re another species that have taken full advantage of what we put out on offer and their populations seem to have benefitted from changes in farming practices. They are generally considered as pests by farmers, gardeners and gamekeepers as they’ll eat grains and greens, especially newly sprouting ones, all day long. I rather like them, most of the time they seem very laid-back and have that beautiful soft grey and pinky-purple plumage and the white neck patch; it is nice to see them actually in the woods.

Wood Pigeon – Columba palumbus

Gooseberry – Ribes uva-crispa

In one spot up near the top of this Woodland Path there’s a well-established Gooseberry bush, with a few smaller ones dotted around nearby on both sides of the track. More familiar in gardens and allotments, Gooseberry is frequently found in the wild, growing in woods, in scrub and in hedges and are probably mostly bird-sown.

Stopping to photograph the Gooseberry I heard a Wren singing. It was close to me but I couldn’t spot it. There are a few Celandines flowering, but they’re quite sparse, perhaps because it’s been so dry.

A native wild flower, Dog’s Mercury is flowering. It’s still short, not yet more than six inches (7.5cm) tall.

Dog’s Mercury-Mercurialis perennis

Here and there are clumps of pretty ferny moss. This one is in the middle of the Wood Sorrel patch, whose shamrock-shaped leaves are just beginning to unfurl.

Spurge Laurel – Daphne laureola

Spurge Laurel is one of the more unusual plants that grows here on the Bryn. It is a native plant that favours wooded chalky hillsides, so I have no reason to think it’s not here naturally, but I haven’t seen it on any other sides of the hill.  A very small shrub that must contend with much taller trees and shrubs  towering over it, it’s equipped with thick leathery evergreen leaves, resembling those of Laurel, that can withstand dripping rainwater. It produces its small green fragrant flowers early in the year to make the most of the light before a new canopy of leaves shuts it out.

The near hills and more distant mountains were veiled by a misty haze. Patches of snow clung to the highest peaks, another reminder that winter is still not past. As I stood looking at the view I heard a Woodpecker drumming back in the direction I’d just walked.

Alexanders puts out it new leaves early, often in early February and it’s quite well grown now. It has established on the path-side just before it reaches the reserve and although woodland is not it’s usual habitat, it seems to be spreading. Another introduced plant, Alexanders was brought in as a food plant by the Romans; it has a mild, celery-like taste. This a plant that isn’t usually found far from the sea; there’s a lot of it locally on the Little Orme and in recent years it has spread prolifically along the verge of Llandudno Road, which I suppose is not that far away as birds fly.

Alexanders – Smyrnium olusatrum

The Woodland Trail

Where the Woodland Path meets the Woodland Trail of the Nature Reserve, a Flowering Currant bush is in bloom.

Flowering Currant – Ribes sanguineum

 

A popular and familiar garden shrub, with pungently aromatic leaves,this one was again probably also bird-sown. As with the Gooseberry, Flowering Currant can be found throughout the British Isles naturalised in woods, scrub and on waysides.

 

 

The Trail is dry and baked hard. The unseasonal warm sunny weather is a treat, but we’re going to need some rain soon. Gorse is flowering more strongly now. I can never resist a chance to smell the warm coconut aroma of its golden flowers. Delicious.

As I reached the enormous bramble patch a Long-tailed Tit flew across the trail in front of me. It disappeared into the dense shrubbery, but then I saw another in the bramble patch. I could see it through the tangle of stems but not clearly enough to photograph. I waited for a few  minutes hoping for a better view, but no luck. About to walk on I heard a whistling call and watched a bird fly strongly over the track and land high in a Sycamore tree. It was clearly on the move, so I took a ‘panic pic’ in case I missed it, but just managed to catch it before it zoomed off; a Nuthatch. I was thrilled, I’ve had very sparse sightings of them here, and never this high up in the woods.

Nuthatch – Sitta europaea

Yew trees are our third native conifer tree, after Scots Pine and Juniper. They are widespread throughout these woods, where they grow well on the chalky hillside. A number of them line a section of the Trail, with other single trees on the other side.

One in particular was heavily laden with flowers. Yews are one of those species that have separate male and female trees. This one is a male; the female flowers are less conspicuous, being tiny and green.

Yew – Taxus baccata

Then there’s a line of Ash saplings, they are growing so closely together they almost make a living fence. More ‘invaders’ grow along the edge of this stretch of the Trail; Tutsan and the dreaded Cotoneaster, which has thus far escaped being routed out.

Beyond the Ash are the Hazels. From the way in which they grow it would seem that at some time in their history they were pollarded as now most of the trees are multi-stemmed and form a small thicket. They are all quite tall though, so if ever they were cut it must have been some time ago.

Because the trees are tall and growing on a steep slope, you perhaps don’t get the full effect of their crop of pale golden yellow catkins, you have to look up. 

There were more Blue Tits here exploring the Hazels and the surrounding vegetation. At the beginning of this month, on an equally blue-skied sunny day I’d stopped here to look for the female flowers of the tree, which are tiny and red and quite hard to spot, especially if you need reading glasses, as I do, but can’t be bothered to keep putting them on to look for things when out walking.

This was not the best place to look as even the lower branches are above my head, so the  photograph above is one I made earlier. Once again though, my hanging around brought a reward. Often a good spot for catching sight of parties of Tits, I was lucky enough to see a pair of Coal Tits arrive and spend a few minutes foraging through the trees. I loved the way they grasped individual Catkins, inspecting them closely to check for hiding insects.

A bit further along the Trail and on the other side from the Hazels, a tree smothered with frothy white blossom shown up perfectly by the deep blue sky; a proper floral treat.

This is a Cherry Plum, although not the truly native wild one as it has bronzy-coloured leaves and not the plain green of the wild one. It could be Prunus atropurpurea, which is a popular garden tree, but I’m not sure.

 

I don’t think its exact pedigree matters too much, it was lovely to look at and more importantly was also attracting the attentions of quite a few insects. All very high up though. There were definitely a couple of smallish bees and small long hoverflies.

The blossom won’t last for long; already petals are falling and strewing the ground below like confetti.

Another good reason to take one last photograph with the sun shining through it.

Back at ground level, the leaves of Lords and Ladies, or Cuckoo Pint if you prefer, are well grown now, they began to appear back in late January.

Lords & Ladies, Cuckoo Pint – Arum maculatum

and to finish, a first sighting this year of a single Dog Violet.

Birds today: Wood Pigeon; Carrion Crow; Raven; Magpie; Herring Gull; Nuthatch; Blackbird; Robin; Dunnock; Great Tit; Blue Tit; Long-tailed Tit Heard: Song Thrush; Wren; Gt Spotted Woodpecker (drumming)

Some Joys of Changeable Weather

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January 26th-Hornsey

Near the top of Hornsey High Street there are intriguing glimpses of a stone tower seen from the pavement through a screen of tall trees. This is all that remains of St. Mary’s Church, the Parish church of Hornsey.

The tower is a listed Grade 11 building and is within the Hornsey High Street Conservation Area. I think it may be possible to arrange to see inside the Tower; I’d like to do that, I do love old churches.

A sign set into the boundary wall of the tower’s grounds informs that this is a Garden of Remembrance and is a calm little oasis where people and wildlife can take a few minutes away from the busy High Street. It seems to be valued in the community and its gardens are always well-tended.

A quiet walk around the gardens is always a treat and today I made it a diversion on my way to the supermarket. I walked around, stopping to read the information board about the graves and tombs within the grounds.


I hadn’t noticed before that one of the chest tombs is the final resting place of the Morgan family from Bridgend in South Wales. It might seem odd, but this piqued my interest as Bridgend is where my two daughters were born and close to where we lived as a family for 17 years, and now one of my sons lives just around the corner from where they ended up. It might also be of even more interest and relevance to any Morgans out there whose ancestors once lived in Bridgend!

Enjoying a welcome sunny interlude on an otherwise cold day, I turned the corner of the path that leads up to the tower and almost collided with a huge bumblebee! She was a Buff-tailed queen that had flown off from the pretty creamy white flowers of a shrub. I was surprised to see her quite this early in the year; perhaps the sunshine coaxed her out, but did she know she’d find the shrub in flower or was it just an exploratory expedition?  I stopped to have a closer look, and to smell the flowers of the shrub: they were gorgeously fragrant. I don’t know what it is, maybe a Sarcocca species? I’m always keen to find plants that are good for early nectar & pollen-seekers. If anyone knows for sure what is, please let me know!

There was another surprise here; a large Eristalis sp. hoverfly was also out and about looking for food and sat for some time on one of the  shrub’s flowers. 

Also flowering was a Christmas Rose, or Hellebore and there was a light sprinkling of daisies in the grass.

The supermarket is located at the back of the New River Village development, so I walked back along the same gravel path that I’d taken a couple of days ago, but in the opposite direction. I was happy to see a pair of Mute Swans cruising slowly upriver towards me; another common species, but how can anyone not be charmed by their beauty and grace? I loved this image of a young Black-headed gull shadowing a Swan. Perhaps he thought he’d grow up to look like that one day?

Despite their calm and graceful demeanour, Mute Swans may be extremely quarrelsome and will bully smaller species. In the breeding season males stake out a large area of water, and as we witnessed at the end of last year, he defends this territory aggressively against all intruders. They are not entirely without a voice either, despite their name; when angry they hiss and snort and can occasionally manage to trumpet, albeit feebly. 

Most of the time though they cruise the waterways peaceably, often in their pairs, stopping frequently to feed on submerged water plants.

January 27th

I was going home today, but before I left there was time for one more walk up to Alexandra Palace, this time with my son and grandson who were both in need of some fresh air. Fresh air was certainly what we got, along with wind and a few showers of hail. This walk was a lot more speedy than my last one.

I didn’t linger on the side of the boating lake, but did spot the all-white duck out swimming with a Mallard drake. Are they a pair I wonder?

I was really pleased to see the Pochard drake out with a female to add to my collection. On my last visit he’d been out on his own.

Pochard female

The texture on the water surface was the effect of wind and hail; the golden highlights were a reflection of one of the moored boats.

This was just hail! Pretty though.

We stopped briefly on the terrace of the Palace where a pair of Magpies were flying about between perches – one settled on the top of a lamppost,

the other on a stone cornice.

Views of the city skyline were slightly better today, but still looming up from mist.

View to Canary Wharf

View of the City Skyscrapers

As we walked back down the hill to reach the pavement alongside Alexandra Palace Way, I spotted a flock of birds foraging on the grass. Beautiful Redwings.  

Redwing – Turdus ileucus

The redwing is most often encountered as a winter bird and is the UK’s smallest true thrush. The creamy strip above the eye and orange-red flank patches make it distinctive. In open countryside redwings favour hedges and orchards as well as open, grassy fields. They will come to parks and gardens, particularly in periods of bad weather when snow covers the fields. There were twenty or more birds here and they looked perfectly at ease; not at all concerned by people passing very close to them, or by me taking photographs for that matter.

An unexpected treat and a lovely way to end my visit, despite the wintry weather.

 

 

 

A New River Path to Alexandra Park

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January 24th – Hornsey

I’m in London for a few days to enjoy the company of my littlest grandson (and his mummy and daddy of course). They live in Hornsey, a district of north London in the London Borough of Haringey described by Wikipedia as “an inner-suburban, for the most part residential, area centred 6.2 miles (10 km) north of Charing Cross.” So, conveniently close to the centre of the city, but also well-blessed with easily accessible green spaces within and adjoining it. Close by there’s Alexandra Park, which surrounds the iconic Alexandra Palace, (better known to many as the Ally Pally), part of which is a Local Nature Reserve. There is also the added bonus of water in the form of The New River, which is much quoted as being neither new nor a river, as it’s a man-made waterway opened in 1613 to supply London with fresh drinking water from the river Lea in Hertfordshire. A rather disjointed Path runs the length of the river from its origins in Hertfordshire to its conclusion at New River Head in Islington, a total of 28 miles, two sections of which run through Hornsey.

Today I had a few hours in which to occupy myself, so set off on what has become a familiar and favourite route, taking in a short length of the New River, on through Alexandra Park Local Nature Reserve and up the hill through landscaped parkland surrounding the Palace building to the Boating Lake. There I was hoping to find a couple more species to help towards my aim for this winter of seeing and improving my recognition of ducks. The map above was taken from the info board at the entrance to the river and shows the route – it’s a bit weatherworn and marked with a graffiti ‘tag’, but is still legible. It was a cold day with little breeze, heavy cloud and a lingering mist, which I hope  all help bring interest and atmosphere to my photographs!

THE NEW RIVER PATH

The access point to this section of the New River Path is located more or less at the point where Turnpike Lane becomes Hornsey High Street and opposite the junction with Tottenham Lane. The entrance is a sort of kissing gate, which it’s impossible to get through with a buggy, wheelchair or a bike. 

400 years after its construction, the New River is still an important source of fresh water for North Water and the Path is open to the public at the discretion of Thames Water, who own it. All sections of the Path are subject to being closed if any maintenance works are being carried out. The Path is not surfaced and gets muddy and slippery in wet weather, so may not look too appealing unless you’re wearing appropriate footwear.

Fortunately there is an alternative path along this stretch of the river on the opposite bank bordering the ‘prestigious’ New River Village development. Views of the river are good from here and you’re less likely to disturb any wildlife that just might be out on the grass bank of the other side. Surfaced with gravel it’s better for walking on too, albeit a bit noisy and ‘crunchy’,  but it’s still not ideal for anything with wheels. The access to this path is a little further up the Hornsey High Street, on the same side just beyond the traffic lights. The Path by the river looked wet and muddy, so this is the path I took today.

I wasn’t anticipating seeing anything ‘exotic’ on this walk, but as much of the wildlife is used to the close proximity of people, it’s often possible to get better close-up views  than you can in wilder settings. The first birds I heard and glimpsed were Blue tits flitting and calling as they foraged through the trees and shrubbery in the landscaped grounds of the development. Pigeons are numerous throughout this whole area of course, and I couldn’t resist this one with its lovely slate and purple feathers puffed out against the cold perfectly illustrated the mood of the day.

Black-headed gulls are equally as numerous, if not more so. This one, whose head is beginning to show signs of summer plumage coming through, was sitting gazing downriver-

perhaps he found the pair of synchronised diving Mallard as entertaining as I did.

Somewhere near the middle of this section of the Path, a small building spans the river. This is a sluicehouse built in the 1850s as part of the Hornsey Waterworks; it would have been used to control the river’s water levels then, but I don’t know if it’s still in use. More Black-headed gulls sat in a straggly line along a metal fence here.

Sluicehouse

A Moorhen had been foraging on the far bank then dropped back onto the water, paddled across and left it again to patrol along the pipeline that runs the length of the river, where it is exposed to differing degrees. In this shaded spot below an overhanging bramble the water below was icy.

On the other side of the building is a depth gauge, which shows the water to be slightly less than 8 feet deep.

There’s a sign here warning of a ‘sudden drop to water’, with an amusing graphic of a tumbling figure conveying a serious message. It certainly wouldn’t be amusing to be floundering in 8′ of freezing cold water today, especially as the lifebuoy is behind a spiky iron fence on the opposite bank of the river. Another requests that you don’t feed the ducks. I wonder if that’s to protect the ducks or to avoid contaminating the water? More likely the latter as the river is still a main supply of water to North London.   

Cold, low-lit misty days like today may not be the most enticing to get you out of the house, but the rewards for making the effort can be great. The ordinary may suddenly become extraordinary. Light on water silvers its surface and the clear cold water captures deep reflections. A light breeze skimming across adds texture broken apart by the passage of jewel-bright dabbling ducks as they swim and dive, creating momentary complex patterns within patterns.

Mallard female

The light catches the red eye of a Coot and brings out the purple in its plumage.

A Canada Goose grazed on bright green grass which is already showing signs of new growth.

Canada Goose – Branta canadensis

I’d reached the end of this section of the river Path now; this look back shows the New River Path on the left bank, the gravelled path I walked along on the right and the sluicehouse spanning the water. The tall old building directly behind it is called Bank Chambers, appropriately as it did used to be a bank and is on the corner of Hornsey Hight Street and Tottenham Lane at the beginning of my walk.

I was standing on the bridge to take this photograph. Looking in the other direction, the river continues on through a fenced-off waterworks compound, where there is also a reservoir. Of course there’s a break in access to the NR Path here, but it can be picked up again further along.

The signpost indicates routes that are Greenways, a Government initiative to encourage the use of  “safe, quiet routes through parks, green spaces and lightly trafficked streets. They are designed for walkers and cyclists of all ages and abilities and encourage healthier, more sustainable travel and lifestyle choices. They are ideal for seasoned commuters, novice cyclists, family groups and responsible unaccompanied children”.

From here you get the first glimpses of Alexandra Palace.

The route to the Park passes a reservoir that is part of the Waterworks then around the back of a small housing estate and past a fenced-off Community Garden. From in there I heard the loud, cheerful cheepings, chirpings and chatterings of House Sparrows way before I located them in this leafless tangle of a twiggy shrub. They were so well camouflaged in there I could hardly see them; the level of sound told me there were a lot of them better than my photograph can show.

ALEXANDRA PARK & PALACE LOCAL NATURE RESERVE

The entrance to Alexandra Park Local Nature Reserve. My picture speaks for itself I think; damp, muddy, brown, misty, not much light, pretty much deserted today.

On the enlarged map below I’d come in via Gate 3, which is next to the red dot on the pointy bit on the bottom right. the path I would take then goes around that outside edge, meets Alexandra Palace Way then continues on up around the right-hand side to the Boating Lake.

Staged for full dramatic impact atop a natural platform, the Palace was veiled in mist. 

Another flock of Black-headed Gulls hang around on the muddy playing field.

The path winds sinuously onwards. This is often a good place to see small birds; there’s usually a Robin or two and Great and Blue Tits frequent the vegetation to the left of the path. I did hear a Great Tit calling and saw it fly away, but nothing else today.

To the right of the path the land is very often flooded and almost always at least damp and muddy. I don’t know if there is a stream or whether this is just a drainage ditch. Again the water was capturing perfect reflections. The pollarded tree is a Goat Willow, already showing forth the soft silver-grey catkins that give it is other name of Pussy Willow.

There’s fresh new greenery in the water; I couldn’t get near enough to see for sure what the plant was. Perhaps it will be in flower next time I visit.

There was other new greenery; clumps of cow parsley and nettles are both already a couple of inches high. There were Hazel catkins too.

At the end of the path is a charming little building set at the top of a flight of steps. There’s no information close by to tell you what it’s purpose was; I keep trying to find out – curious by nature, I like to know these things! An old ticket office maybe – there is a bricked-up doorway?

At last, a bird! A rather handsome Carrion Crow foraging for worms and any other titbits that may be found on a grassy verge.

ALEXANDRA PARK

I crossed over the road, Alexandra Palace Way, into the parkland surrounding the Palace. The path goes through an avenue of lovely old trees interspersed with elegant cast-iron lampposts, which are all numbered. Those at this end of the path are up into the 200s.

I love these huge old London Plane trees. There was a flock of bright green Ring-necked Parakeets screeching as they flew amongst their high branches, but they were too mobile and too high up for me to catch a photograph. I’d not seen them here before.

Remnants of snow and icy puddles show how cold it was, but walking uphill is a great way to keep warm!

It’s hard to convey the size of some of these trees, but the one below is enormous both in girth and height.

London Plane – Platanus x hispanica

London Planes keep their round woody fruits, which slowly break up over the winter to release their seeds. The seeds don’t have much value as food for birds and are probably only eaten by grey squirrels.

The enclosure to the left in the photograph of the big tree used to be home to a herd of Deer, but is now a climbing adventure park. Apparently an independent vet concluded that “the health of the herd was in slow decline and the animals were displaying symptoms of stress. This can be caused by a number of factors including the size of the enclosed area, proximity to the general public and general noise from the surrounding urban environment. As such the Park is no longer suitable for keeping deer. In the best interests of the deer they are being relocated to two well-respected existing deer parks in Devon, both larger than the enclosure in Alexandra Park, where they will be able to roam free and thrive.” I’m sure they’ll be much happier there.

THE BOATING LAKE

Between the entrance to the Boating Lake area and the Lakeside Café  stands this rather handsome statue of a lion. A collar round his neck names him Leo.

Disappointingly the café  was closed. In fairness they wouldn’t have had much trade this afternoon as there were very few people about.

The flotilla of brightly painted Swan and Dragon-shaped boats brought colour to the scene, but they weren’t operating either.

 

The Lake is huge and home to a good number of ducks and I didn’t have long to wait before I had at least one species to add to my afore-mentioned duck-sightings list.

As I’d hoped there were Tufted Ducks. Two drakes and a duck raced towards me, I’m sure hoping or expecting to be fed. There are no information boards showing what species you might here, nor are there any notices about not feeding the ducks or advice as to what food should be offered. Maybe that’s because getting out to feed the ducks is an important part of some people’s days and is often the first experience children have of contact and awareness of our wildlife, particularly in towns and cities. I have fond memories of doing just that with my grandparents in their local park in Northampton. Nowadays in most places, the ducks face stiff competition from the gulls.

Tufted Duck – Aytha fuligula (Drake)

Tufted Ducks have adopted many lakes and ponds in city parks and gardens, and despite being unknown in Great Britain before 1849, the species is now our commonest diving duck. They are often very tame and contend with the Mallards, Coots and Moorhens for any scraps thrown in by visitors.

Tufted Duck (female)

Further back, on the vegetated edge of the lake I spotted the rusty-red head of a Pochard drake, but no sign of a female.

He obligingly swam towards me too.

There are plenty of Coots here. I watched this one pull a twig from beneath the water, probably to investigate eating it, but maybe it’s nest-building already.

A Black-headed gull that came in to have a look was soon sent packing – Coots are very territorial.

This one was a little more serene and perfectly reflected in a patch of still water.

I’m sure you all know that this bird’s bare bright white frontal shield and bill explains the origin of the expression ‘as bald as a Coot’. As I said earlier, male Coots are feisty and territorial squabbles break out frequently between them. Their shields play an important part in displays of aggression when it is held forward, low on the water with wings and body feathers fluffed out behind to look as fearsome as possible. Did you know they also have fabulous, if slightly weird,  blue feet?

From a distance I’d assumed the flock of Black-headed gulls were floating on the water, but looking more closely they were actually standing on it- it was frozen! Their clear reflections doubled the apparent size of the flock, but there were a good number of them anyway.

This young Black-headed gull still has some of its adolescent feathers.

I set off to make an anti-clockwise circuit of the lake and was met by a Moorhen walking in the opposite direction foraging for scraps of food.

A grey squirrel scampered towards me and waited hopefully at the bottom of a tree. It was so close I think it would have come and taken food from my hand.

The view of the lake from the opposite far side gives a better impression of its size.

A flock of Pigeons perched up in a tree.

I stopped to smell the flowers of this pretty Viburnum shrub, gorgeous perfume.

Virburnum Bodnantense

They may be common and numerous, but I think our native Mallards are gorgeous-looking ducks; they are certainly colourful. Look at that beautiful emerald head, bright yellow beak and orange legs.

Amongst the Mallards sat this pure white duck, which could well be a throw-back from a past Mallard mating with an Aylesbury duck and creating Khaki Campbells, as I’ve posted about before. It’s the same size and shape as a Mallard but with a more orange bill. Maybe it is just an Aylesbury. I don’t know!

But then again there was another pair close by with a ‘proper-looking’ male Mallard and a very pale brown female with some white feathers around her rump, so it’s possible some inter-breeding of species has occurred at some time.

Canada Geese are much simpler to be sure about.

I’m fond of Moorhens too, which crop up just about anywhere there’s available water. They have bright yellow, chicken-like legs and feet and like Coots they also have a shield at the front of their heads, but that and their bills look to me like they’ve been daubed with sealing wax.

Having made a full circuit I was back in front of the café. Such a shame it was closed. But here I had a sighting that made my day – a Moorhen that from where I stood looked like it was walking on water. Of course it was really walking on ice! I wondered if it could see its own reflection?

as it stopped and stood for a few seconds looking a bit confused

then set off again.

From the Boating Lake I walked over towards the Alexandra Palace building. From the terrace in front of it there are spectacular view over North London to the City skyline. On this misty day I didn’t hold out much hope, but felt I had to look anyway. Walking beneath the trees I heard a Jay screeching as it flitted amongst the branches of a Plane tree.

A  pair of Magpies turned over leaf litter hunting for anything edible that may be hiding beneath them. They attracted the attention of two more that flew down to check out what they doing. This provoked quite a feisty response from one of the original pair resulting in the intruders being seen off with much loud harsh scolding and flapping of wings. I hoped this wasn’t parents chasing off their last year’s young ones.

Bulbs had pushed their leaves up through the cold winter ground; they’ll soon be flowering and heralding in the spring.

I reached the Palace terrace, but as I’d suspected there was no view of the City today; the skyscrapers just visible on the left horizon are in Canary Wharf. The still unfinished new Tottenham Hotspur stadium, known locally as ‘The Toilet Bowl’ due to its shape, can also be seen from up here – I’ll point it out on a better day!


I did have a nice view of a turning British Airways plane though.

And I was treated to an eye-level view of a Blue Tit that seemed to be determined to dig something out of hiding in the bark of a cherry tree.

There are several choices of route back, but I opted for the simplest downhill route through the landscaped parkland. The short grassy banks are a favourite feeding place for Wood Pigeons, there were several there today.

Blackbirds rummage around beneath the shrubs and hunt on the lawns for worms.

Blackbird female

A close sighting of a cute little Dunnock prompted my last bird photograph for the day. The daylight hours are getting longer, but days like these remind you there’s still a way to go till winter’s end and a warm home with tea was still a mile or so away!

Dunnock – Prunella modularis

 

 

 

 

Fine Dining for Crows

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Historically, the Carrion Crow Corvus corone, is one of our most maligned and persecuted birds and the species continues to sustain losses at the hand, or gun, of man. But as one of the cleverest and most adaptable of our birds they continue to thrive despite us. And in common with other resourceful species dependent on their wits and equipped for  scavenging, many can be found taking full advantage of our amenities and messy lifestyles.  I was reminded of that on a recent walk along the Prom at Rhos on Sea where the rocky shoreline and mussel bed are a regular foraging ground for Crows.

Carrion Crow eating a crab

I noticed a Crow dropping what I assumed was a shellfish onto rocks still exposed by the incoming tide quite close-in below us. (Us being me and my 16 month old grandson snug in his buggy). I’ve watched this fascinating behaviour before, but this was the closest view I’d had. Fumbling for my camera with gloved hands whilst manipulating the pushchair meant I missed getting a shot of the final successful drop, but I was able to watch the bird tuck into his tasty mussel snack.

This was one of three Crows foraging along this rocky stretch, one of which was rummaging amongst the dry seaweed and debris collected on the strand line.

It was working hard to extricate something from amongst the seaweed debris then having tugged it loose, it carried it off to a large rock nearby.

I couldn’t work out what on earth it was, but watching the bird tear off smallish pieces to eat, a piece of old, greasy chip paper came to mind! Even looking more closely at my photographs hasn’t enlightened me, so I’d be interested to hear anyone’s alternative suggestions. Whatever it was the Crow seemed more than happy with it, clamping it to the rock with its feet to make tearing easier.

As I said earlier, there were three Crows foraging more or less together. They seem to be adolescent birds, so could well be siblings from last year’s brood produced by the resident local pair. It wasn’t long before one of the others spotted the potential to share the bounty and, crouching low to the rock, tried to sneak in stealthily.

Going in from the front clearly wasn’t the brightest idea, and it was soon sent  packing.

It didn’t give up and soon tried again, this time more assertively. That didn’t work either, it just made the feeder more annoyed and this time the would-be robber was dispatched with cawing and an aerial attack.

Even that wasn’t enough to put it off though and it soon came back again, sneaking up from behind this time.

A determined lunge and a grab with its formidable beak finally secured it a piece of whatever-it-was and it fluttered off to a spot surprisingly close by to enjoy its stolen prize.


I’m sure the snack was all the tastier for not having had to work for it.

I thanked the birds for sharing their mealtime with me and left them to it.

 

 

Siesta Time On the Saltmarsh

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January 6th

11:19- A first view of the Oystercatcher roost. This regular high-tide spectacle was what I was here to see, but though I knew the birds would be there, that first sight always brings mixed feelings. Firstly there’s relief that things are as they should be, which is quickly followed by the delight of witnessing a truly amazing sight. The numbers of overwintering Oystercatchers are the reason that Traeth Lafan holds the status of Special Protection Area (SPA), which in theory means that measures are put in place to protect populations of specific species of birds of European importance. How that works in practise and what the measures taken are, I’m not too sure. According to Natural Resources Wales, there can be somewhere in the region of 5,000 Oystercatchers present over the winter months, which is at least 0.5% of the wintering Europe and North & Western Africa population. On the same basis as the SPA, the birds are also a qualifying component of the site’s SSSI status.

Oystercatchers roost, rest or preen at high tides when their feeding grounds are flooded

As I’ve confessed before, I’m not good at counting large numbers of birds at the best of times and these were packed tightly together with more out of sight over the far side of the raised spit, so I’m sure they number in the low thousands. Oystercatchers don’t always roost tightly packed together, so it was interesting to see how in this photograph a lot of the birds are pressed together and standing neatly in straight horizontal lines, particularly those on the outsides of the flock.

This roost wasn’t entirely about the Oystercatchers either; a number of Curlew were squeezed in amongst them and Redshanks had tagged on too. The Redshanks were the first ones awake and back in action at the very instant the tide turned and the water started to recede. I imagine the Oystercatchers resting more peacefully with Redshanks present which will sound off alarms at any potential threat.

A Shelduck was standing on the sandy edge of the stony spit enjoying a lengthy thorough preening session.

Shelduck – Tadorna tadorna

Once it had finished it too waddled into the shallow water to begin again the endless quest for food. Shelduck are surface feeders, taking mostly animal food from mud or shallow water.

The Redshanks were joined by a flock of Dunlin and Ringed Plovers that flew in and scattered along the freshly exposed sand; quite possibly these were at least some of those that I saw back at the beginning of my walk. 

A little further inland at the back of the Oystercatcher roost I’d spotted three ducks resting on a stony bank. There was one dark-headed male and two with reddy brown heads that I took to be either females or juveniles. They were quite a distance away and as they were sitting I had no idea what they were, then they got up and headed into the water.

On land the birds had seem plump and awkward, but out on the water they became elegant, gliding across the water and diving effortlessly and often. Based on the appearance of the male I thought Goosander, but then doubted myself as this species of diving duck usually prefer freshwater lakes and don’t often swim in the sea. If I’d only seen the females I would probably have thought they were Red-breasted Mergansers, which often swim on the sea and are associated more with this location.  The females of both species look similar, but there’s definitely no red breast on this male.

Goosander – Mergus merganser

The female Goosander has a similar brown head to the Red-breasted Merganser female, but the Goosander has a flatter crown.

Walking back the water had already almost completely drained from the channels that cut through the marshland.

 

 

Hearing a Redshank making a loud and insistent racket I walked towards the sound to see what was happening to alarm it. There was nothing I could see, but I was treated to a charming display of it stamping and dancing in the mud, which it accompanied with some loud piping.

 

 


A small flock of Wigeon were resting; some on a newly-exposed mud bank and more up in the grass.

A pair of Teal sitting up in the long grass was perhaps my favourite pic of the day.

Curlews were also still resting in the sunshine.

But the sheep were on the move, I met them head on as they were walking in single file back in the direction of the field the Curlew were in. I stood to the side so they could pass in peace, they startle quite easily.

On the seashore a few waders were already out searching for shellfish in the still-soft damp sand.It’s fascinating watching the birds in action, the Curlew with its long curved bill can probe deeply into the sand.

 

Oystercatchers walk slowly over damp mud or sand probing their bills into the sand right up to the base if necessary in search of shellfish. This one seemed to be doing well; I watched it retrieve several mussels as I watched it. Different individuals use differing techniques to get the animals out of their shells, some like this one, stab the muscle that holds the shell halves together and retain their pointed bill. Others take a less delicate approach and hammer the shell open, often on stones or rocks, which blunts the end of their bills.

Oystercatcher adeptly opening a mussel shell

A Little Egret stalked close to the shore. Gorgeous views of the sunlit bird against the steely blue seawater.

And to finish on dry land, lovely views of a pair of Mistle Thrushes also out hunting, this time on the damp ground of the grassy field. It could well be that they are preparing for nesting; the Mistle Thrush is one of the earliest species to breed, some nest as early as February.

The Mistle Thrush has the most upright stance of all of the thrushes and moves around with bold heavy hops. Unlike the more secretive Song Thrush they like to feed out in the open in large grassy spaces.

Sightings summary over two consecutive days: Goosander; Pintail; Shelduck; Mallard; Mute Swan; Wigeon;Teal; Grey Heron; Little Egret; Curlew; Redshank; Greenshank; Oystercatcher; Turnstone; Dunlin; Ringed Plover; Herring Gull; Black-headed Gull; Carrion Crow; Jackdaw; Mistle Thrush; Chaffinch; Dunnock & a lot of sheep