Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Figgering it out at Fowlmere

Fowlmere RSPB reserve as its name suggests, was once open lake or mere, and a home for wildfowl. I don't find it a very inspiring name. The reserve, which lies between Cambridge and Royston, escaped drainage, unlike most of the surrounding area, which is now intensively, industrially farmed. I've been to the reserve a number of times, but never found it, well, very interesting really. Quite dull in fact. Still, I thought, as we were in the area, I'd give it another go. The weather was singularly uninspiring.

Just as we were driving down the reserve track I spotted these ears, way, way in the distance in the middle of a field. A good hare day for me then.  
A small meadow near the reserve entrance was a riot of late summer flowers; hemp agrimony, perennial sow-thistle and wild carrot. 
It was not, unfortunately a riot of butterflies. There were a few butterflies flitting about though, including this tatty red admiral and a bee with landing gear down.
The water in the streams was crystal clear, fed as it is by natural springs. I am not of a piscatorial bent so have no idea what this is. I'd hazard a guess at a young brown trout.
One of my favourite (I have many) plants is, gypsywort (Lycopus europaeous), found here, in its preferred habitat by water, on the banks of the stream. Lycopus means wolf foot but I'm not sure which bit of the plant this might refer to. [I did find one book which said the rhizome.]
Gypsywort has a few traditional herbal uses, including use as a mild anti-hyperthyroid. I don't have access to my herbal books at the moment (as writing this away from home), to see what they advocate, although I didn't see it used during my herbal training. There is some evidence (here, but I have only read an abstract, not the original paper, and abstracts can be misleading) that its use in mild hyperthyroidism, might give some relief of symptoms like increased heart rate in the morning.

Greater chickweed (Stellaria neglecta) is another plant of damp soils by streams.

At first I thought this rather striking creature (below) was a solitary wasp of some description. There were a good few about and closer inspection showed they don't have waspish waists or the pointed abdomens of wasps, although they are pretty convincing wasp mimics (fooled me, which is not that hard). 
Maybe a sawfly? Google came up trumps once I tried 'figwort sawfly' (we saw the insect on figwort). I couldn't get close for a shot so these were all taken on full zoom. So I can name this insect, with a degree of confidence as the figwort sawfly, Tenthredo scrophulariae; Scrophularia being the figwort family.
Pepper saxifrage (Silaum silaus), is not a saxifrage or a pepper, but smells of pepper when crushed (especially the roots). It's an umbellifer. The flowers are a pale creamy yellow and it's a plant of damp meadows, being a pretty reliable marker for ancient meadows.  I am pretty sure this is pepper saxifrage, which we found on a small patch of grassland in the reserve. New plant for me and it was pretty distinctive.
The name silaum, means ochre yellow. The name 'saxifrage' given to many non-related plants, is from the Latin saxifraga, "stone-breaker" (saxum "rock" frangere "to break").

I'm not but any means a fungi expert, but this orangey-yellow splurge on some cut willow branches, looks like 'chicken of the woods' or sulphur shelf (Laetiporus sulphureus). Edible I understand.
Common reed (Phragmites australis) was everywhere abundant. Tall reed habitats can feel quite oppressive. Perhaps that is why I find Fowlmere so dull usually. I feel fenced in. I call common reed devil's bit reed as every leaf blade has a 'bite mark' on it; makes it dead easy to identify. 
Devil's bit reed is a capital habitat for birds like bittern, bearded tit and marsh harrier, but it is vigorous and can dominate huge areas; not only in fresh water but in brackish water on estuaries and on coastal grazing marsh. In reserves like Fowlmere, although the miniature Dexters, are doing sterling work suppressing its growth in some areas, I assume the site management will involve the hard graft of rotational cutting of the reed to maintain clear areas of water for birds. 
The view from Reedbed Hide. It had begun spitting with rain and the light was getting really poor.
From the hide we saw; sand martins feeding overhead, a heron, 5 teal and about 35 mallard sitting peacefully and preening on the water. That is apart from one crazy teal, who clearly had ants or a tick or something. While all the other birds sat quietly, he/she preened for a second, then started darting about and splashing between the other birds, like an excitable child. The mallards quacked disapprovingly. I only managed to get one shot of him/her in flight to remind me of the pleasure it gave me watching this one little duck.
I'm a grasses, sedges and rushes virgin, so have no idea what this rather luxurious plant might be. Next year I am going to tackle them...
Always a pleasure to see Atropa belladonna, deadly nightshade. Such an evocative name and a plant of ill repute, and thus of great interest. Naughty plants are cool. 
Its black mini-aubergine-like fruits (it's related to tomatoes and aubergines) look inviting, but are toxic.
Just as we were heading to the car park, I saw this stock dove (I think that is correct), sitting on a gate. It let me approach quite close and I checked to see if it was OK. It flew off, so I assume so. I've never looked closely at stock doves before but it's beak looked really odd.
Although Fowlmere didn't get me ecstatic (as you can probably tell from my muted tones), I did have a fairly relaxing afternoon wandering about and saw some species new to me. 


  1. Good hare day? That's painful!
    I agree with your assessment of the reserve, unfortunately - it's a bit worthy.
    No grass-poly then?

  2. Yeah, that was a bit of a feeble pun. Best I could muster today.
    No grass poly. I suspect it grows somewhere in the vicinity but not on the reserve itself. Didn't see any pingoes either ;-)
    Yes, it is worthy when you see the vast agricultural landscapes of Cambridgeshire devoid of hedgerows and trees.

  3. A good romp through the Cambridgeshire flatlands Mel. A long time since I've seen gypsywort, which like it's latin nomenclature is a bit vague. It does make a dark dye which gypsies used to darken their skin and clothings form to be "mystic" but wort? not sure. Fascinating how these plants gained English names, as this one is also houndswort in some books, so possibly Lycopus looked at the seed capsules? or not. Probably like you say rhizome or root.

  4. Hi Andrew. Been away so no books handy to look things up. Now home and have just reached across the desk for my tatty copy of Geoffrey Grigson. He seems to suggest the story of gypsies staining their skin with gypsywort is essentially racially based and just repeated from book to book down the ages. But he also says it gives a good black dye (quoting Gerard). I didn't know that. Must try to dye something as did have some gypsywort growing by the pond in the garden. I'll report back. Lycopus? I don't really know. Mel

  5. Like a lot of facts in books Mel, and even more on the internet, a theory or thought becomes fact and then becomes embedded in stone. I'd not be surprised if it were racially motivated. The good old days apparently :-)

  6. ...and herbalists essentially plagiarised each other down through the ages - words and woodcuts. Yes, the internet is a gold mine and a minefield. Ah, the gold old bad old days! Is the past a foreign country? M

  7. 'Gold'? That should read 'good old bad old'. Really should spell check before posting....