Sunday, August 28, 2011

After rain...

Aagh, curse the weather! Undaunted by the forecast, and spurred on by a chat with a friend this week, we decided to go in search of plants near Northill, a hamlet in Bedfordshire, about 5 miles from home.

First off, a visit to College Wood, Northill (GR TL 14155 46713). There's room for a couple of cars by the entrance (which is not used, as it is blocked by a huge old stump).

A tatty speckled wood was sunning itself on the gate. As usual I spooked it before getting close enough for a decent picture. 
An admiral of the red did oblige... did a comma, albeit from a distance.
The late summer vegetation was toppling over and jolly damp. Glad I wore my new wellies. Common fleabane (Pulicaria dicentrica) is just fine, even when toppled.
Many blackberries were well past their best with the recent drenching. Some were rotten. I thought the devil spat on them at Michaelmas (29th September)?
A herd of earwigs were hanging out in this old angelica leaf, as earwigs do. Looks fun.
The hairy rhophalid bug, Corizus hyoscyami looked resplendent in its aposematic (warning) livery. It's about the right timing for this bug, as the new generation of adults are seen in August-September. 
Staying with the hairy theme, I've been seeing this little beastie around lately. It has a hairy butt and flapping feet. I wonder if it's the tachinid fly Tachina fera? These guys (I only say 'guy' 'cos of the bristly bits) parasitize other insects, often caterpillars. 
The local red bartsia (Odontites verna) population contained many individuals which were decidedly light pink. Quite distinctive.
A stripey hoverfly caught my attention. I believe this is Helophilus pendulus. It's name means 'dangling swamp lover'. I'd identify anything as Helophilus pendulus just to write 'dangling swamp lover' in my blog. 
I can't think of any excuses for the quality of my photos today; must have been the thundery weather and the associated fluctuations in atmospheric pressure. I put this blurry picture in, just to clinch the identification. DSL has a 'deep U shaped bend' on the 3rd long vein on the wing (Chinery,1986). I think this is it. 
And then, just when my little logophilic cup was filled to the brim; more entomological delight! I chanced across the one insect I've always wanted to see. Not because it's rare or garishly coloured or freaky (actually it is) but because it has the most, absolutely, the most fantastical name in the whole world; Gasteruption jaculator. It's the kind of word I wouldn't have been allowed to use as child, as someone might have mistakenly thought I was saying something else.
The etymology is probably as follows; 'gast' is Greek, from gaster meaning stomach, and eruption means to break out. These insects parasitize the larvae of solitary bees. Jaculator is Latin, a Roman javelin thrower. To jaculate is to throw a weapon or dart. I guess if you misthrow or you throw too soon and your javelin falls short of the mark, that would be a premature jaculation (sorry). This female, with her impossibly long, white-tipped ovipositor, her 'dart', was nectaring feverishly. Fantastic :-)
Across the road from College Wood is Home Wood. It's a lovely mosaic of habitats and contains a network of medieval fish-ponds and rabbit warrens. Walking through the wood was quite dark so we ventured out along the edge of the arable field adjacent.

Diamonds on the ground; the flowers of round-leaved fluellen (Kickxia spuria) are little jewels.

Sharp-leaved fluellen (Kickxia elatine) has striking halberd-shaped leaves. A mouse-eye view might look something like this...
Many-seeded goosefoot (Chenopodium polyspermum) was seeding prolifically everywhere.
Other plants seen included; dwarf and sun spurge, marsh cudweed, prickly sowthistle, black bindweed, scarlet pimpernel, field madder (here overexposed with a fluellen flower)...
The colours a cloudy sky goes when it changes...
The storm clouds were still swirling overhead, it was spitting and thundery, and windy of course.  And then, a stunning little gem; trailing St John's wort (Hypericum humifusum). 
Not what I expected in an arable field and I was a little wary of my identification, so worth risking muddy knees and elbows to get down to see this decumbent little beauty properly. I couldn't detect raised ridges on the stem with my fingers but a hand lens revealed them (there was a thunder storm going on overhead at the time). The leaves were perforated with translucent dots and edged with little black dots, as were the petals (which were only a little longer than the sepals).

Back in the woods, this lovely dragonfly gave me seconds to snap it basking on an oak leaf in a damp woodland glade. If you gave me a penny for my dragonfly identification skills, you'd get change. Looking in the book (odonatists turn away now and snigger), this looks most like a vagrant yellow-winged darter...

To finish on a sad note, well, not everything in life has a happy ending, 2 forlorn and sluggish bush crickets. A male oak bush-cricket in the field who could barely move, perhaps knocked down during the storm.
And this weirdly swollen female speckled bush-cricket, waiting on the car. 
I've no idea what is wrong with this poor lady, but she was dragging herself along and fiddling with her jaws a lot. I put her on a nearby gate post...
...but thought better of it, and went back and placed her in some vegetation.

After rain we walk in the greenfields once again...
...well, the forecast looks better for this week, so let's hope so :-)

More information
Chinery M (1986) Collins Guide to the Insects of Britain and Western Europe. Collins.

I didn't realise College Wood, Northill was sold last year. The sale brochure 
makes interesting reading and includes a site map, if you're interested.

The walk through Home Wood, Northill, is along the Greensand Ridge Walk, between points 3 and 4 on this route map.

The fishponds in Home Wood are a scheduled ancient monument.

Plantlife have produced a scoring sheet for arable fields based on the plant species found. It's useful to carry a copy when out walking. The field edge I walked along had 5 species of interest that caught my ill-informed eye; sharp-leaved and round-leaved fluellen, dwarf spurge, field madder and many-seeded goosefoot.

On page 75 of Blamey, Fitter and Fitter (Domino Guide: Wildflowers of Britain & Ireland, 2003) the illustration shows flax-leaved St Johns wort (Hypericum linariifolium) in cross-section with ridges down the stem, but the text says, it is ridgeless. I wonder if the illustrations got mixed up and the stem section is for trailing St John's wort (Hypericum humifusum), which does have ridges on its stem?

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Stealth flying

Tempsford airfield is a special place; an open, flat Bedfordshire landscape where I can go to be alone. Now intensively farmed, this was a top secret airfield during WWII from whence special agents were flown into occupied territory. 
Not even the locals knew what went on at the site. The old runways are still there.
This secret airfield was used by the Special Operations Executive. It was a base for 2 legendary RAF squadrons: 138 (Special Duties Squadron) and 161, which dropped agents and supplies behind enemy lines in Europe. The Germans apparently knew of it, but never discovered its location. There is little evidence of the airfield today. Just the old runways and an inconspicuous little barn. 
As I walked to the barn, I spotted a few plants of what looked like amaranth growing on the verge (Amaranthus retroflexus I think). I've always thought 'amaranth' is a romantic sounding word. Spurred on by writing this I looked up its etymology (on Wikipedia). It's apparently from the Greek ἀμάραντος (amarantos) meaning unfading. The Greek for flower is ἄνθος (anthos). Yup, romantic.
This pretty clover looks to me like alsike clover (Trifolium hybridum). It's named after Alsike in Sweden, where it was first cultivated in the 18th century. 
The barn is just off the public right of way. There are no signposts on the path or plaques outside to indicate what it is.
Here's the same shot in March. 
There are no doors. It is just open to the elements. 
This is an amazingly atmospheric place. I'll not say much more, but just show you some pictures of the inside, incase you never get to visit yourself.
One of the most evocative names found on the memorials at Tempsford is that of Violette Szabo GC, MBE, a secret agent, who flew out from RAF Tempsford on her 2 missions to Europe. She was captured, tortured and executed by the Nazis in 1944. She was 23 and immortalised in the film Carve her Name with Pride. She would have been issued with her equipment from this barn.
Tempsford Veterans Association newsletters are available to read.
The barn was recently renovated by the Countess of Erroll (the landowner). 
There were 4 appropriately white doves up in the rafters. One posed for a picture, albeit rather reluctantly.
On the floor of the barn I found 4 tawny owl (Strix aluco) feathers. The extra velvety fluffiness on the top of the feathers helps to muffle the sound of the owl flying, making it a superb silent, stealth hunter.
Outside I came across a tawny owl carcass. Well, part of one. I looked about but couldn't find the skull unfortunately. 
The feathers show the characteristic owly fluffiness.
The foot with its 4 sharp talons, even in this decomposed state, shows very clearly how an owl can grasp and hold on to its prey. The scaly rough skin gives the owl a firm grip on wriggling food.
I snapped (not that easy to do) one of the bones. It was hollow; an avian adaptation (not unique to owls) to reduce weight for flight.
I wonder what caused its demise.

Further information
Tempsford airfield is on private farmland. The walks described in this and my previous post are accessed on public footpaths/bridleways via the Skylark Ride waymarked route [and set between points 16 and 17]. Although the barn is just off the public footpath, it is on private property. I have never been challenged when I've been inside and have met, on occasion, other walkers or cyclists pausing to pay their respects. 
These websites have more information about the airfield, squadrons and agents who used Tempsford during the war.