Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Winters monochrome: Snowdrops and Goldeneye's

The darkest days of the year are in January, dark not just because of the number of daylight hours but Christmas is over and the days are wet, windy and miserable. Things can seem desolate and the spring and good weather a long way off. Heading out on foggy, wet damp days easily grinds you down, longing for a bit of sun, a bit of warmth, a bit of colour.

The Fog of a Winter Morning

Grimley in Winter

Having said that there is often beauty to be found in the monochrome days of January. Recent sightings at my local birding patch of Goldeneye ducks have brought a bit of excitement to my birding trips. Despite lacking flamboyant colours they are a stunning beauty of black and white with a dark green head. I always think the white stands out as a purer white than you normally see in nature.


Somewhere out there are Ducks

They are in the class of diving ducks which means they dive a lot to feed off crustaceans, aquatic insects and crustaceans on the lake bed. Due to their diving nature you can often miss them if you are not careful! The Goldeneye's that you are likely to encounter in the Uk are wintering birds, with the exception of a very small breeding population in the highlands, most of them will come from further afield to take advantage of our warmer winters. Like a lot of ducks they nest in trees, interestingly they like to nest in cavities in the wood. These cavities are often natural but they can use the cavities made by Black Woodpeckers. This is a beautiful connection between two amazing species of birds. The more black woodpeckers there are in Scandinavia the more Goldeneyes we will have on our UK lakes in winter.

Heron at Sunrise

Grimley at Sunrise

Shortly after admiring these beautiful ducks on a cold and crisp morning, light dusting of snow at my feet, something caught my eye as I walked past a small patch of woodland. Something that instantly gave me a warm feeling of hope. Something that said new life is coming, that spring is just around the corner. It was a small patch of Snowdrops! The date was 22st January. It felt like the earliest record and I kind of wish I keep more detailed notes of these things. But I guess that is life. With a bit of research I have learnt that traditionally it was rare to see snowdrops before February so my records might not break any records but they are part of a continuing trend that points towards the impact of climate change on our natural environment.
Woodlands at Dawn

My First Snowdrops

Snowdrops are popular and I think it is because they do give this sense of hope of the coming warmth. They are also wide spread across our woodlands. Once we get into February there are few woodlands across our land that do not have small patches of these dainty little flowers. However, they are an invasive species. The exact date of their introduction is unknown, some suggest they were brought here in roman times; but the first record is in 1770. So in Britain they are a non-native plant and fairly extensive. Yet in their native home in southern and eastern Europe they are not doing so well and is under the conservations status near threatened!

My Daughter Loved Taking Photos of Snowdrops

Often invasive species can be seen as a problem or a bad thing for the natural environment. I don't think that snowdrops fit into this category. There is little else to compete with and they do not last long enough to have an impact on plants that flower later. In fact, I think that the snowdrops help our native insect species by providing some nectar and pollen for early emerging insects. Not that they rely on this for reproduction, our climate is not quite right for seed development and we don’t have enough pollinators.

Jemima's Snowdrops 

Carpets of Snowdrops Shrawley Woods

Snowdrops are in fact considered to be toxic for human consumption so should not be eaten. Not that the thought has ever crossed my mind but with the ever increasing hobby of foraging for food I guess for some people it might be a question. Eating them will cause nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea. There are a couple of active chemicals in a Snowdrop that cause them to be toxic and this is where things starts to get interesting. These chemicals are of interest to modern medicine. Firstly there is galantamine which is used in the treatment of Alzheimer's disease. It does this by preventing an enzyme (acetylcholinesterase) from breaking down acetylcholine and therefore increasing the action of the nurotransmitter acetylcholine, which play an important role in the brain in terms of memory, attention, arousal and motivation. In addition to this, the chemical snowdrop lectin (named Galanthus nivalis agglutinin) is being used in research as it appears to have the ability to inhibit HIV infection.

River Severn 


What an amazing little plant the Snowdrop is! My first encounter was on a crisp frosty morning and reminds me of this poem by Walter de la Mare “The Snowdrop”

Now — now, as low I stooped, thought I,
I will see what this snowdrop is;
So shall I put much argument by,
And solve a lifetime's mysteries. 

A northern wind had frozen the grass;
Its blades were hoar with crystal rime,
Aglint like light-dissecting glass
At beam of morning prime.

From hidden bulb the flower reared up
Its angled, slender, cold, dark stem,
Whence dangled an inverted cup
For tri-leaved diadem.

Beneath these ice-pure sepals lay
A triplet of green-pencilled snow,
Which in the chill-aired gloom of day
Stirred softly to and fro.

Mind fixed, but else made vacant, I,
Lost to my body, called my soul
To don that frail solemnity,
Its inmost self my goal.

And though in vain — no mortal mind
Across that threshold yet hath fared! —
In this collusion I divined
Some consciousness we shared.

Strange roads — while suns, a myriad, set —
Had led us through infinity;
And where they crossed, there then had met
Not two of us, but three.

Thursday, 1 December 2016

Fungi in Autumn

Autumn is a time of rich colour. Red's, oranges, browns, yellows. Colours that warm you up and get the heart racing. That moment when the sun hits the copper of a beech tree and you have to stop and take it all in. Walks in the woodlands take on a different feel. Wrapping up warm and getting out on a crisp frosty morning, nothing like it.

To combine a bit of family visiting and to get the most out of the Autumn colours we decided to visit the national Arboretum at Westonbirt! We were not the only ones who had this idea, it was immensely busy, but the colours were great. They really do have a fabulous tree collection. However, for me the real highlights were some of our native species. Beech trees really do turn a stunning colour and I think that familiarity can often prevent us from recognising them.
Worcester in Autumn 
Visiting the Arboretum really encouraged me to take note of some of the woodlands and trees around Worcester. Sometimes you can easily take for granted what you have on your door step. So we made a few woodland trips over the last few weeks to local woodlands: Pipers hill and The knapp and paper mill. My daughter loved them. Taking in the colour of the trees and getting out on the colder days for an embracing walk. However, if you keep your eyes peeled there are other sources of colour to be found. Fungi. 

Knapp and paper Mill - Ann-marie (King Alfred's Cake) 
Knapp and Paper Mill - Jemima
This Autumn when ever we have been out and about we have tried to find as many fungi as possible and indeed photograph them. We turned it into a bit of a competition on who could take the best photo! The idea is to try to identify them but this is a challenging job. The diversity of fungi is huge. The total number of fungi species in the UK is 15,000! They come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. Spending a bit of time looking and enjoying them is the first step in understanding how this amazing form of life survives. 
Knapp and paper mill - Laurie (Matchstick Fungi)
Piper's Hill - Gabriel (Amethyst Deceiver) 
 The exciting part of fungi is the mushroom or toadstool. However, this is only a small part of the organism. It is important to note that fungi are a kingdom of their own, they have a completely different cell structure to plants and animals. They have a different way of doing life and the mushroom is a small but important part of that. Toadstools are the fruiting body and connected to a much larger organism that lives under the ground. They are found as a network of cells called hyphae that are grouped together as a mycelium. They are vital for life on earth as they help transport nutrients through the soil and enable trees to exploit water and nutrients in the soil. The hyphae will interact with the root system of a plant or tree. The hyphae are smaller and further reaching than the plants own root system so can cover a wider range. This makes them vital for the survival of plants and trees.

Piper's Hill - Gabriel

Piper's Hill - Jemima (Fly Agaric) 
They obtain their energy, not from the sun, as plants do but from decomposing organic matter. They do this by absorbing the nutrients through their cells walls, which are made from chitin not cellulose as it is in plants. They are in fact important decomposers as well as providing trees and plants with nutrient they break them down into the soil. They also have a complicated reproduction cycle as well. But it is the reproduction cycle that provides the toadstool that we often enjoy fried for breakfast.

Piper's Hill - Laurie
Piper's hill - Laurie 

Fungal reproduction is a complicated topic and most fungi will reproduce both sexually and asexually. Asexually is by far the most common method. It is quite simple as they don't have to come across a partner. They just produce the spores and away they go. There is a disadvantage and that is that it produces genetically identical offspring. Sexual reproduction tends to occur when nutrients are scarce. It is a very complicated process compared to plants and animals but the out come is essentially very similar to that of the asexual process: spores.

Pipers hill - Jemima
Pipers Hill - Jemima
Which ever way they reproduce they will produce spores. I think that the fungi's real bit of evolutionary genius is the spore. Made in the fruiting body and they are a microscopic, often single cellular, new self contained fungi organisms ready to grow into new mycelium. Due to being so light they can be transported on the wind and air and spread out across the world. What an amazing, and successful, way to spread out across the planet. But I suppose it is the spore producing, spore releasing fruiting bodies that form all these weird and wonderful shapes that make the whole process so enjoyable to the human observer. Of course that is not why they evolved.

Croome - Ann-marie (Earth Star's) 

Pipers Hill - Jemima
We have really enjoyed walking in our local woodlands this autumn. Enjoying the natural colour of the leaves and doing our fungi forays. I really think it an excellent way to get out and enjoy nature. Even of the huge variety of mushrooms is daunting. We can at least reflect on the diversity that our planet has evolved. 

Knapp and Paper Mill

Pipers Hill 
Dipper from Knapp and Paper Mill

Thursday, 15 September 2016

Evolution and Blue-green Algae at Grimley (includes Baird's Sandpiper)

Life. Its what, I suppose, makes wildlife so fascinating. We are excited and inspired by all the different, amazing, fascinating and unique ways that evolution has taken living organisms in. Some adaptions in living things are simply breathtaking in their evolution therefore it is not hard to be amazed by them. 

Grimley - Pre-sunrise 

 An example of an evolutionary adaptation that I find fascinating is migration. The fact that a bird, at a given moment at the end of summer, will embark on a journey of 1000's of miles to a location that it has never been to. They have no idea where they are going they just follow their natural instincts that are dictated to them by their genes. The whole point of this process is ultimately survival. If they were to stay in the cold harsh condition of the north they would die, so they follow the food and fly south where it is warmer.

Swallows about to Leave


Well it happens to be that time of year when migration is happening. The species that have been enjoying our wonderful abundance of insect life, long (sunny) days and breeding lots are currently leaving. Many like the swift have left (I saw my last on 25th August). Others like the Swallow and House Martin are getting ready. It is great because you can see them lining up on electrical wires getting ready to go south to Africa.

Spotted Flycatchers About to leave for Africa

Waders on Migration 

Waders, however, are often the first bird's that you start to see passing through on their long journeys south. In fact this autumn migration can start as early as July. As a result there is always a bit of excitement as to what you might see coming through. This autumn I have already seen quite a few rare waders. This highlight being a Baird's Sandpiper spotted at Upton Warren.

Baird's Sandpiper - Record Shot - Upton Warren

The Baird's Sandpiper is a bird that summers in the north of north america and winters in Argentina. It has clearly been blown off course as it took its amazing journey south to Argentina. As I said migration is an amazing adaption that provides the birds with a way of survival through the harsh winter. Unfortunately for this individual it might prove disastrous, unless it can get back on course. However, it has provided some interest from a large number of birders.

Birders watching the Baird's Sandpiper - Upton Warren

Dunlin and Little Ringed Plover - Grimley

Even at Grimley we have had some good waders through this autumn, including some long staying greenshank. However, perhaps what has caused the largest interest is a species that at first glimpse you might not get too excited about and that is blue-green algae. First of all it is not exactly a species in fact they are a whole phylum of bacteria or correctly called cyanobacteria. They obtain their energy through photosynthesis, a bit like the plants only different as they are not plants. They are prokaryotic. This means their cells are very different from most living things like us, birds, insects, plants etc.

Blue-green Algae 

Spotted Redshank - Wader On Migration

At first thought they might seem to be a little dull, I mean they don't do a lot. They just sit in the water carrying out photosynthesis and multiplying. And the way they do that is not even interesting as all they do is grow and then split in two. They have indeed evolved a way of life that is hard to get excited about. However, scratch beneath the surface of their history and perhaps we might be a little more thankful for their existence. They are possibly the sole reason we have oxygen in our atmosphere at all!! Without them there would be not oxygen. That means no humans, no birds, no insects, no plants, no fish, non of the vast and interesting life that we get so fascinated by. They are the sole reason life was able to evolve in the way it has to produce the amazing diversity and complexity that we all enjoy today; and indeed evolve to produce you.


They are quite amazing really. What they do is very simply carry out photosynthesis, this is done in folds in their outer membrane (not in chloroplasts like green plants). The overall product of this process is oxygen and glucose. The best bit is they can do it in low levels of oxygen. If we go back 2.5 billion years, when they first evolved, there was no oxygen in our atmosphere. These, or their very similar common ancestors, evolved and went about photosynthesising and growing and splitting and photosynthesising and growing etc etc and slowly but surely changed the atmosphere on the whole planet. Thus making it possible for more complicated life forms to evolve, like the Baird's sandpiper and us.

Hobby in a Tree. Shortly Heading to Africa

They are a very diverse group of living organisms although most of them are this rather beautiful blue/green colour. Unfortunately a few of them will do some rather unpleasant things, like produce toxins are a by-product of their metabolic process. These toxins can have devastating consequence for other life.

Wednesday, 15 June 2016

The Garden Bioblitz and Some Colourful Chemistry

A few weeks ago it was the Garden Bioblitz weekend. It has been set up to get an idea of the amount of wildlife that lives in peoples gardens across the country. Its aim is to survey all the wildlife that is found in your garden over a 24 hour period. When my daughter heard about this she wanted to get involved as part of her 30 days wild challenge, excellent! On Saturday morning she went out and started surveying and photographing all she found. 

Getting involved with the Bioblitz
Most photos were taken by Jemima!

Our garden is quite small and mainly comprised of a concreted patio, however, it soon became clear to my daughter that there was quite a lot of wildlife present. The star of the show was the mint moth. A small but beautiful day flying moth that will lay eggs on mint leaves and when the caterpillars hatch out they will feed on the mint. They are not a pest as they are very small; you will always have loads of mint so it's not a problem.

Mint moth on Forget-me-not


The moth has two generations the 1st being around May to June. These will hatch out of the cocoon that they have over wintered in. They mate, feed on pollen and lay their eggs. These eggs will hatch out, feed on the mint and produce a cocoon. This cocoon turns into the second generation adult. It is the caterpillars of the second generation that produce the cocoon that over winters and will produce the 1st generation of the following year.

Garden Snail

Green Alkanet

In our front garden we do have a few wild flowers and the most numerous is the Green Alkanet. This is a fascinating wild flower that we were very interested in for several reasons. Initially it was clear that it was great for invertebrates as there were several species of bee and fly feeding off the nectar and pollen. This is really important as it helps to increase the biodiversity of our small garden.


Green Alkanet - Flowers start purple then blue

However, what really impressed me was some of the chemistry that this common weed, Green Alkanet, has up its sleeve. One of the first things you notice is the spiky hairs that the plant has. These are actually made from silicon dioxide and calcium carbonate they are called cystoliths and are produced by special cells in the leaf called lithoysts. They evolved as a deterrent to herbivores. In fact they will cause a mild rash to humans.

Cystoliths on the Green Alkanet

14 Spot Ladybird

Another aspect of the alkantes chemistry is the roots are used to make red dyes. This is a practice that has taken place hundreds of years. The chemical has now been isolated and identified as alkannin. Interestingly, the dye is also an acid/alkaline indicator as it changes colour depending on its pH. They are red in acidic conditions and blue in alkali conditions. This ability to change colour depending on the pH is a fascinating and really important part of chemical analysis.

Scarlet Tiger Moth

Garden Spider

They are not the only plant that can be used to make an indicator. The most well known example is the red cabbages. In fact you can have a lot of fun with with red cabbages and its dead simple to do in your kitchen. All you need is some red cabbage and coffee filter papers. To provide the acid and alkali you can use lemon juice (acid) and bicarbonate solution (alkali).

All the equipment needed

The Colourful Chemistry 

Mix the red cabbage with some warm water to extract as much of the pigment as possible. You can use a pestle and mortar to help. Then soak the paper in the indicator, it should go purple. Allow it to dry and then paint on the lemon juice (it goes red/pink) or bicarbonate solution (it turns blue). The chemical responsible is called anthocyanin. This is an activity that you can do at any age. You do not need to be as young as my friends children, shown here,. The chemistry of indicators is quite beautiful and indeed quite technical.

Friends children getting involve with the indicators

The final master piece 

I think it is amazing the diversity that can be found in your garden, just turn over that stone, look underneath the leaves in the nooks and crannies of your garden. Who knows what you will find. As well it is amazing what the plant life of your garden can offer the world of science as well. Just looking is often just the start of a fascinating scientific adventure. 


Woodlouse - one of the 40 species found in uk 

Most of these photos were taken by Jemima, 12.