19 December 2010

Bleak midwinter pentagram

A small group of us walked through the snow mantled woods today not only in a blizzard but in a thunderstorm.

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It was a bleak landscape appropriate for the close approach of Yule, Midwinter.

One of our group wanted to see the pentagram on the oak stump in Holman Wood.

Years ago people used to go there - maybe a group of modern pagans or wiccans - but there seem to have been no recent visits.

The stump was covered in snow and, as I brushed if off with my hand, it filled the grooves that had been cut to make the pentagram so that is stood out like a pattern on scraperboard.  The device wasn't immediately apparent but emerged, as though by magic, as the side of my had swept over the wood, packing snow into the grooves.

20101218 BHW pentagram in snow 032

The pentagram has been used in a huge variety of contexts, often religious, for at least 5000 years and its meaning varies according to whether the single point is at the top of the bottom.  In this case it is simply where I happened to be standing that put the point below.

The falling snow, the thunder, the stillness of the winter wood gave a luminous mystery to the cold emergence of this mystical symbol from the dark, dead stump.

As we stood the continually falling flakes of snow quickly obliterated the brief and icy revelation of this winter star.

19 November 2010

Coneyburrow autumn

On a lovely autumn day I walked around Coneyburrow Wood and some nearby areas.

There are still some interesting fungi about.  I found the always late wood blewits (Lepista nuda) in several places.

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If well-cooked this is an edible species and I have had it from time to time but, I have to say, I am not too keen on it as food - I just enjoy its pale mauve embellishment of the November Woods.

There was also a rather fine turkey tail fungus (Trametes versicolor) growing on a stump, in this case without a very strongly marked pattern of differently coloured rings on the cap.

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On another stump I found a neat little puffball which I think is just a baby Lycoperdon perlatum a common woodland species.  All the pictures I have looked at show it as having a broad, short stalk below, but this may develop on the example I found, or be hidden in the moss.

20101119 BHW Lycoperdon

Another striking feature today was the lovely golden colour of the larch trees (Larix spp.) as they shed their needles for the winter.

20101119 BHW Larix in autumn  024

They are not a native British species and, generally speaking, I find them rather ugly with lots of dead, spiky branchlets.  They do, however, have this autumn moment and another in spring when the fresh green needles emerge.

20101119 BHW Larix in autumn  030

29 October 2010

Autumn delights

Brede High Woods is at its autumn best after last week's frosts, but the leaves will soon come down if there are strong winds and heavy rain in the offing.

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If you walk from Reservoir Lane (TQ806193) at the transmission lines northwards along Goatham Lane there are many spindle trees in the hedge, some fruiting quite well.

20101029 BHW spindle berries

Opposite Lone Barn Farm there are several young elm trees with bright butter yellow autumn leaves.  Without flowers and fruit (and even with them) elms are difficult to identify, but these seem quite plainly to be the Dutch elm (Ulmus x hollandica).

20101029 BHW elms in autumn 23

I suspect both these and the spindles were originally planted to make a more varied hedge.

On one of the elm leaves I found the larval mine of the red elm pigmy moth (Stigmella lemniscella).

20101029 BHW elm leaf miner 1 

There are a few records of this from West Sussex but only two very old ones from East Sussex, though it has probably been overlooked.  It is widespread elsewhere in the southern part of Britain, though it is good to know it has found a place for itself in Brede High Woods.

Heading north from the Reservoir Lane corner along the transmission line path I found, between the second and third pylons a medium sized, multi-stemmed alder buckthorn (Frangula alnus) which I must have walked past hundreds of times without noticing.

20101029 BHW Alder buckthorn

It is the yellow leaves that make it stand out and autumn is a very good time to look for the less frequent trees and shrubs due to this added dimension.

6 October 2010

Autumn galls

Brede High Woods is entering its autumn phase now.  After the recent rains fungi are abundant and many of the trees are starting to turn colour.

One new record was of the ground ivy gall (Liposthenus latreillei or glechomae) caused by a small cynipid wasp.  Round galls like his are mostly found on trees and shrubs and it is quite a surprise to see them on such a low growing plant.

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Maybe their being close to the ground accounts for the fact that they are called cat's testicles in Hungary.

22 July 2010

Walk round Sedlescombe Heath

The areas cleared last year on what we call 'Sedlescombe Heath' are showing signs of benefit from the extensive conservation work.

In places dwarf gorse and heather seedlings are growing well and there are now two sites for dodder (Cuscuta epithymum) which we thought we might have lost.

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The strange thing is that this parasitic plant, when in flower, looks much like heather (Calluna vulgaris), its host in Brede High Woods, but it comes out a few weeks before the heather so can be easily spotted.

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Before flowering it looks very different (see above) as a mass of tangled, red threads with no chlorophyll.

Dodder is a declining species that was formerly much more abundant on the unimproved heathlands in Sussex and elsewhere.

Another plant that is taking advantage of the new clearances is heath groundsel (Senecio sylvaticus) which seems almost confined, though in considerable quantity, in the area just south of the orchard where the Norway spruce was cleared. 

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I have a feeling the wind blown seeds must have been caught by the pine branches and have lain dormant until there was sufficient light to trigger their germination.  The plants seem to be very ephemeral and I suspect they will decline and disappear in this area within a year or two as other species develop.

Butterflies are also benefiting from the wider rides and longer woodland edges.  The only one I photographed was this very worn female ringlet (Aphantopus hyperantus), a species that is actually expanding its British range.

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Also on the wing were meadow browns, gatekeepers, small coppers, red admirals, large and small whites, large and small skippers and several silver-washed fritillaries, a splendid butterfly that seems to be having a good year.

There was also a red and black burnet moth zooming across Holman Wood Field.  Probably a six-spot and good to see as this seems to be another attractive species that has declined massively in our area over the last few years.

16 June 2010

Corn spurrey

There are quite a few plants of corn spurrey (Spergula arvensis) currently in flower on the area south of the orchard that was cleared of dense Norway spruce last summer.

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The plant is an ancient introduction, a so-called archaeophyte.  It was once widespread on arable and disturbed ground but is now in rapid decline due to agricultural improvement.  Some of its seeds, however, are thought to remain viable for a very long time and the plants in the former spruce plantation have almost certainly come from a pre-conifer seed bank.

It requires acid, sandy soil and does not grow on chalk or limestone.  It was once a problem weed and is a sign of poor ground.  In Shetland where it is called 'meidi' any quantity of the plant was regarded as a sign that the ground needed more manure.

As well as meidi there are many other country names, a sure sign that the plant was important from the way it indicated soil deficiencies.  These names include beggar-weed, bottle brush, cowquake, dother, farmer’s ruin, franke, granyagh, lousy grass, makebeg, make-beggar, mountain flax, pick pocket, pickpurse, poverty weed, sand-grass, sandweed, spurry, yarr, yarrel, yawr and yur.

The leaves of the plant are very distinctive being arranged in whorls and rather widely spaced along the stems.  They are also quite sticky from glandular hairs.

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14 June 2010

Celery-leaved buttercup

Today I found a small plant of celery-leaved buttercup, Ranunculus sceleratus, in an open area to the south east of Austford at TQ789204 beside the path running south from the footpath crossroads.

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This seems to be the first record for Brede High Woods.

The plant is filled with an acrid juice that raises blisters better, it seems, than any other buttercup.

The Reverend John Lightfoot in his Flora Scotica (1777) described it as having a "most acrimonious quality" adding that "Strolling beggars have been known sometimes purposely to make sores with it, in order the more readily to move compassion."

Haven't seen many strolling beggars in the woods lately.

6 June 2010

Cloaked Pug moth (Eupithecia abietaria)

A couple of days ago I spotted this rather large pug moth on a conifer trunk in the Austford area of Brede High Wood.

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It looked to me like a cloaked pug (Eupithecia abietaria) and Colin Pratt, the Sussex lepidoptera recorder, has confirmed, subject to the size of the moth, that this determination is correct.

One was caught in 1986 about five miles from this location, otherwise this is only the second record for East Sussex in the past 100 years.

Apart from some scattered records, this species seemed to die out in Britain in the early 20th century, but has since been rediscovered in some places, maybe as a result of immigration from mainland Europe.

The caterpillars feed on the cones of Norway and Sitka spruce as well as noble fir.  There were several of the first two trees in the area where the moth was found so, hopefully, it is breeding there.

5 June 2010

Giant ichneumon egg laying

Today I was lucky enough to spot a female giant ichneumon, Rhyssa persuasoria, laying her egg on some hapless grub deep inside a pine log near Austford in Brede High Woods.

20100605 BHW Rhyssa persuasoria 018c

It is one of natures wonders how the insect manages to drill her ovipositor down through often quite hard wood to locate the host larva with great accuracy.  You can see in the picture how she has to curve her ovipositor up, then round in a circle to get it pointing directly downwards.

Having caught her in the act, it was not particularly difficult to photograph, but after a few shots she spotted me, gave me a glare and flew off at high speed.

I often wonder about the evolutionary history of creatures like this - is this really an easier way to survive than the innumerable alternatives, like eating mud, that other insects have evolved?

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22 May 2010

A beetle for Biodiversity Day 2010

Today, 22 May, is the International Day of Biodiversity.  In the spirit of such an event a group of us, under the auspices of Butterfly Conservation, went on a caterpillar foray in Brede High Woods.

The weather was glorious, but the adult butterflies rather few.  Despite enlightened management species like the grizzled skipper, the green hairstreak or the pearl-bordered fritillary no longer seem to be present.

However, there was a compensation.  In a waist high grove of aspen suckers we found several groups of the larvae of the ladybird-like leaf beetle Gonioctena decemnotata, a Nationally Notable (B) species normally found on aspen.

20100522 BHW Gonioctena decemnotata 003

The remarkable thing was that each group of the black leaf-munching larvae was guarded nearby by an adult, presumably mother.

Such solicitousness for offspring is rare in the insect world and I would imagine a small vegetarian beetle would have minimal ability to drive off a hungry predator.  Does the red colour, I wonder, act as a sort of stop light and say "keep your distance."

The only other East Sussex record for this species I can find is from Bixley Wood a few miles from the Brede High Wood site.

20100522 BHW Gonioctena decemnotata 004

16 March 2010

Flies for fine wines

Yesterday we saw several small flies scooting about on a sticky film of fungus mixed, maybe, with sap on the  stump of a tree felled last year.

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I went back today and was later able to identify the insects as one of the commoner fruit flies (Drosophila subobscura) below.

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Usually they go for fermenting fruits and can be a pest in breweries and distilleries though, according to one account, they "transfer wild yeasts that give fine wines their bouquet."

These were not the only invertebrates active along this particular bank: a queen bumblebee droned by and a marmalade fly (Episyrphus balteatus) settled on a foxglove leaf.

There were more primroses and celandines out today as well as some less conspicuous early developers such as the dog's mercury (Mercurialis perennis) and swan's-neck thyme-moss (Mnium hornum) below.

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 Brede High Woods BHW 001

15 March 2010

The end of winter

This afternoon we walked in the warm sunshine for a couple of hours round the High Woods.  Very few flowers are out yet apart from the hazels, but we did see a primrose and a celandine.

 Brede High Wood BHW 007

On Brede High Heath young birch is being cut to make jumps for horse racing.  This will also help to keep the area fairly clear so that heather and other heathland species can flourish.

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There is much evidence that the wild boar are moving westwards in the woods and we found several rootings including this one at Brede High Farm where the animal appeared to be digging up road stone - perhaps showing off to a potential mate.

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With the brighter light and still no leaves on the trees, the lower plants show up well on the trunks where many species of moss, lichen, liverwort, algae and fungi can often be found happily growing together.

This picture shows the dilated scalewort (Frullania dilatata), a widespread liverwort that usually grows on tree trunks (like this one).

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18 January 2010

Large, rare longhorn beetle

I have just found out that my friend Dave Monk took a splendid photo of the Red Data Book 3 longhorn beetle Mesosa nebulosa in Brede High Woods last July.

This is the first record of this species in Sussex and it shows how important these woods are for invertebrates.

M. nebulosa does not visit flowers and often remains high in the canopy, so it is rarely recorded. The larvae bore into the cambium and later the sapwood of various trees.