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?


  1. Hi Mel,
    Nice post - shame about the terrible joke! :-)
    I'm with you on Gasteruption - see

    Rob at The Living Isle has a nice profile photo of Tachina fera - certainly looks like your fly.


  2. Hi Allan
    I'm still grinning about the Gasteruption :-)
    Yes, Rob's fly does look same. Thanks for link to his blog. I'll have a poke about in there later.
    If weather doesn't cheer up, at least the rain will offer a chance to get into some serious dung-reading :-) And then just need to find some more fresh cow-pats to peruse...not many round here. May go back to Flitwick.

  3. Love the new photo - very autumnal!

    I thought Bedfordshire was supposed to be dull, but with fluellen and trailing StJ, you can't complain. Looks like a good wood.

    That jaculator is a classic - they don't make them like that any more.

  4. Hi KD
    Bedfordshire, bless it, can't compete with your neck of the woods for botany or birds. I'd settle for Sussex or Hampshire...the New Forest....yes, that would be good. I can dream.
    The wood is very nice, and somewhere on the edge of it there used to be a population of lesser centaury. Couldn't find any this year as it well vegetated over now. And Sweet Briar Farm, just a stone's throw away, used to have Rosa rubiginosa growing nearby. How apposite. May go and hunt that out this week, if I get time.
    But then again, I might just put that off to go to Fen Drayton to see grass poly, which I hope is still in flower :-)

  5. Arati - thank you. That is very kind of you to say so. I have no pretensions of being a photographer though! Mel

  6. Mel, thank you for sharing the lovely pictures, your thoughts and research and your wordplay. All much enjoyed.
    Re Blackberries, I noticed the same whilst picking them in my parents' garden in Sussex last weekend; green ones, ripe ones and mouldy ones close together. Don't recall seeing this before, but I suppose it is normal in a damp August?
    Re Fleebane, I saw this in damp ground behind the Burnham Overy dunes Norfolk on my recent holiday. New for me, but I expect I've seen it before somewhere.
    Re Bedfordshire, your words reflect my feelings exactly. We have a few special places and a few uncommon plants, but it doesn't compare with Sussex and Norfolk in richness and diversity. However, there is much to discover by closely observing the natural history of where one lives, and much benefit in sharing ones insights with others, e.g. Gilbert White's Selborne blog would have been on my favourite's list!

  7. Martin. Glad you enjoyed:-) It seems full early for blackberries to go off. Had some tasty ones today near Old Warden though.
    Fleabane is quite common round about here. Lots in Potton Wood in the rides.
    Agree about Gilbert White! Re. blogging; I learn a lot from following other natural history and botany blogs. It's great to know there are people out there who enjoy the countryside in the same way I do. And sharing enhances my own enjoyment of my walks. Mel

  8. Rose's Wild Flower Key says that Toadflax-leaved St. John's-wort (as it calls it) does not have ridges, and shows cross-sections of both that and the two-ridged Trailing, so it looks as though you are right about the mix-up. The Collins Guide to British Wild Flowers does not mention the stem of the Flax-leaved, but does say it is extremely local to ricky ground in south-west England and North Wales.

  9. Hi Bill. Yes, a minor error but worried me in the field for a short while. I've not seen the Collins Guide (the photographic one?) - looked a bit big to fit in my pocket and I do like drawings.