Riverfly 2

David Beeson, January 2022

“The Riverfly Partnership is a network of organisations, representing anglers, conservationists, entomologists, scientists, water course managers and relevant authorities, working together to: – protect the water quality of our rivers; – further the understanding of riverfly populations; – and actively conserve riverfly habitats. The Riverfly Partnership is hosted by the Freshwater Biological Association.”

I am taking a small part in a Citizen Science initiative for the Riverfly Partnership and Environment Agency. I sample a single section of my local chalk river for changes to certain pollution-sensitive invertebrate species. My site is on the River Anton, that feeds into the River Test and that enters the sea at Southampton on the south coast of the UK.

In the first article (Riverfly) there were images of the kick sampling technique and of the collection of stone-clinging invertebrates. The latter invertebrates are limited as the substrate is mostly small gravel, so an unsuitable environment.

Kick sampling is mildly scientific in that it occurs for a specific time, 3-minutes in this case, but the technique is hardly standardised person to person, site to site. But, if carried out by one sampler at a particular location, it will generate a consistent sampling. That data can then be compared month by month. Currently, I am generating a base-line measurement of the target invertebrates of the upper reaches of the River Test.

The project is only looking at eight invertebrate groups and already my data appears similar month by month. Which is a relief, as otherwise I’m incompetent or there has been a big change in the river ecosystem. Phew!

The most common organism encountered has been the freshwater shrimp, Gammarus. Gammarus pulex, or the ‘river shrimp’, is a crustacean related to the crabs and lobsters. It is similar to the ‘sand-hoppers’ commonly seen on our beaches. G. pulex generally lie on their sides under stones, rocks, leaves and wood on river and lake bottoms. They also swim on their sides and can crawl over surfaces and into crevices.

Adult males reach nearly 2cm in length, females are smaller and the young are miniature versions of the adults. They have two pairs of antennae on their head, five pairs of walking legs and two other pairs of leg-like limbs that have hooks on the end. They have been described as looking like a ‘swimming comma’. Males can often be found carrying their mates, and protect them aggressively.

Gammarus are scavengers and feed on the microscopic algae and protozoans normally found in pond water. Their main predators are fish – trout and salmon, bullheads and stone loach all eat them, as do minnows and sticklebacks. In other words, they sit at the base of the animal food chain.

In the River Anton I see trout, sticklebacks and bullheads. All would welcome a snack of a freshwater shrimp or two! Birds such as water rail would also be keen to sample their ‘delights’.

Gammarus pulex

Cased caddis fly larvae are frequently encountered. These are immature flies that spend their young phase in water. To protect themselves they glue materials around their body and crawl forward with their front limbs. The case can be of minute sand particles or vegetation.

Cased caddis fly larva.
Adult caddis fly

The Wildlife Trust website says:

“There are almost 200 species of caddisfly (order Trichoptera, also known as ‘sedge flies’) in the UK, the largest of which is more than 3cm long. Adults are moth-like insects with hairy wings.

Caddisfly larvae live underwater, where they make cases by spinning together stones, sand, leaves and twigs with a silk they secrete from glands around the mouth. Most larvae live in these shelters, which can either be fixed or transportable, though a few species are free-swimming and only construct shelters when they’re ready to pupate.

Adults are often attracted to moth traps, or can be found during the day on vegetation near to the water’s edge, or flying in swarms over the water. Caddisflies are an important food source for all kinds of predators, including Atlantic Salmon and Brown Trout, and birds such as the Dipper.”

The free-swimming caddis are found locally, yet I only encounter them in more rocky areas. So far, they have not appeared in my samples.

Free-swimming caddis that spin an underwater web.

Burrowing mayfly nymphs, Mayfly Ephemeridae, are found in muddy areas. Along my sampling area the substrate is gravel and mud only occurs where weed has established. As I move the sampling transect slightly each time I do not always sample in the weed – so they are not encountered each time.

Ephemeridae adults have ‘up-wings’ while caddis have wings folded along their backs – ‘down-wings’.

Other mayflies are along the river in large numbers. These species enjoy well-oxygenated water and hide during daylight between the gravel, emerging at night to feed. As young nymphs they are herbivores, changing to a more carnivorous diet before emerging. The two types sampled are the blue-winged olive Ephemerellidae and Baetidae. In winter these two types are quite small and distinguishing between them is not easy!

Blue-winged olive Epemererellidae nymph

Finally, I am looking for stoneflies. These are easily distinguished as they have only two tail filaments. So far I have found only a single specimen. I approached the Freshwater Biological Association as to why, and the answer was from Craig Macadam:

“Quite simply, the majority of stoneflies require swift flowing, well-oxygenated water to sustain their populations. They are more common in stony streams in upland areas and in spate-rivers of the north and west. They are relatively tolerant of the slightly acidic conditions found in some of these areas. Whilst chalkstreams are typically of sufficient water quality for stoneflies, the habitat is not conducive to their lifecycle. There are a few exceptions, for example the Yellow Sally (Isoperla grammatica) which is often found in the upper reaches of chalkstreams in Hampshire and Wiltshire.
In contrast, mayflies flourish in the base-rich conditions in the chalkstreams. The relatively constant water temperature and generally consistent flows are perfect conditions for a wide range of mayfly species to develop. The species of stone-clingers (Heptageniidae) are usually absent though as they require faster flows than are present in these watercourses.” Thank you Craig for a 100% answer.

Adult stonefly

The rivers Anton and Test are base-rich chalk streams. And, I have found no Heptageniidae mayflies – the last category for the Riverfly sampling data.

My January data was: Cased caddis – 7; Caseless / swimming caddis – 0; Digging mayfly – 7; Heptageniidae – 0; Blue-winged olive Ephemerellidae – 20+; Olive Baetidae 35+; Gammarus – hundreds, possibly 400 as I gave up counting.

I also encountered three European bullheads (Miller’s thumb), various other mayflies, a few very small leeches, planarians, water beetles and fly larvae.

More on mayflies: They are unique in the insect world in that the adults have two winged forms. The nymph emerges from the water as a dull-coloured sub-adult that immediately seeks a secured covered location, for example in the reeds. After a couple of hours, this sub-adult sheds its outer body covering and emerges as a brightly-coloured full adult.

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Peat and pollen analysis

David Beeson, January 2022

For us, northern hemisphere people, the year is edging towards longer days and shorter nights … and about time too! And there are signs that life is at least starting to think about spring. We have snowdrops just coming into flower, the Tulipa sylvestris have popped up above soil level and our thousands of wild daffodils are poking their leaves skywards. Yet the minus seven degrees Celsius last night will have cooled their ardour. But I digress, peat.

Cors Fochno, or Borth Bog, a dome-shaped peat bog in west Wales.

Peat is mighty useful. You can burn it, make paper out of it, have therapeutic baths in it and, in the past, spread it liberally around the garden. Although we all try to avoid peat composts these days.

In the soils article, I intimated on the origin of peat – from partially decayed organic plant material. Peat is produced in an anaerobic decomposition, usually in waterlogged soils. If oxygen is later admitted, for example when peat is used in a planting mixture, it will, of course, break down and liberate the carbon dioxide from which it was made. Peat is a carbon store, and a small barrier to enhanced carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, and hence Global Warming.  Belatedly, the UK is restoring some of our peat bogs by rewetting them.

Vegetation sheds pollen into the environment. Most decays, yet some that ends up on wet peat is sometimes preserved.

Imagine a small lake in an upland area. Leaves fall into it over many autumns and, especially if the water is slow moving, will accumulate and slowly release humic acids. Acid-loving plants colonise and soon one would be able to spot the start of zonation around the lake, with sphagnum a first major component. The sphagnums (bog mosses) semi-decay into peat, and reeds and sedges germinate in it to generate the second vegetative zone. With time, in the UK, willow scrub then alder woodland and eventually a mixed oak woodland would establish.  A true succession as the lake slowly fills, but with the roots of everything probing into the underlying peat.

It is the march of a glorious vegetative succession. And, given time, the lake vanishes completely.

Chasser prairie, Okeefenokee – this would naturally fill with peat if it were not for the fact it dries out in summer and lightning strikes will occasionally burn it deeper.

In Shropshire, on the Welsh borderlands, some glacial lakes have been almost lost, because the vegetation has grown over the lake’s surface … yet beware! It is only a surface layer and there is open water beneath! [Smaller situations occur elsewhere, of course. Once in the New Forest a group of students, including me, were told not to run across an area of bog. One did (not me) and sunk up to his armpits.] By gently jumping the ground will shake and tremble beneath you.

Nature prefers asymmetrical pollen grains, st | EurekAlert!
Pollen grains

As the peat is anaerobic, and certain plant components decay VERY slowly in it, it represents a time machine with the ancient vegetation stored there for us to rediscover. And the component that one seeks is pollen, for they are unique in their designs. Seek out the pollen and you know the historic vegetation.

[It is also possible to sample the vegetation type via DNA analysis, and that avoids a lengthy time spent at the microscope.]

Quiz question: Are these grains the male gametes of the plant? Answer at the end.

Peat borers sample the soil vertically, and acids can remove the bulk of the peat and leave behind the pollen grains. The deeper the sample, the older the peat. The question then arises, how old is the sample? And the answer arrives easily in a laboratory, for the atmosphere contains minute amounts of C14 which, like all radio-isotopes, gradually decays whether it has remained unfixed or gabbed by photosynthesis into a plant. By measuring the C14 level remaining, and knowing the decay rate gives the age of the sample. [The C14 decays to 50% in around 5730 years.]

It is said that 250 million acres (100 million hectares) of land is covered in peat, with a weight of 223 billion tonnes. Quite a carbon store.

Peat is great! A carbon store and it gives us a window into the past. Real Time Travel.

Experiment: view your own pollen grains under the microscope.

Answer: no! They are the microspores, containing two nuclei, and they germinate on the stigma to grow to produce the pollen tube. That contains several nuclei, one of which is the male gamete. Other nuclei join to form the nucellus. But you knew that because you’ve read Plants are Clever 2.

Pollen Tube Images, Stock Photos & Vectors | Shutterstock
Pollen to pollen tube to fertilizing the egg cell.

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Soils

David Beeson

Soils drive the ecosystem. The plants live in it and their metabolism is the source of the energy and nutrients that feed the animal food chains and webs. It is always worth scanning any profile one encounters on our explorations.

Soil is in layers, horizons.

The A Horizon is usually a deep, dark colour caused by the presence of decaying organic matter, humus.

One of the first actions my students took when studying soils was to burn some topsoil in a crucible. Once fully heated and cooled the end product was often a grey colour – the natural colour of the mineral components. [By weighing fully dried soil samples before and after the burning will give you the % of humus in a soil sample. Clearly, weighing before and after drying gives the water content.]

Humus is generally great for fertility. It holds water and many minerals stick to it lightly, so can be accessed by the local plants. And, as the humus breaks down its nitrogen, phosphorus, calcium, potassium and other elements will be made available to soil organisms.

In our garden we add organic material to enhance our clay soil. Garden compost, purchased materials (Progrow, biogas or mushroom growing waste) and mulched wood and bark are added in quantity. All the herbage from the meadows is processed through our compost bins and donated to the more traditional parts of the garden.

Unfortunately, the humus is being constantly broken down by bacteria and fungi (in aerated soils) and its released elements leached away, so humus needs constantly replenishing.

Significant Soils: Soil Profile & Horizons - YouTube
Soil profile

B Horizon, often called the subsoil, lacks much humus but will often contain materials washed down from the A Horizon.

The C Horizon will be the weathered (broken down) bedrock (D Horizon) or the natural geology of the place. It is this bedrock that provides the mineral part of the soil and will generally determine its pH – acidity / alkalinity.

Soils contain several elements, in varying amounts. Mineral particles, living organisms, water and humus. Understandably, the mineral particles will vary in size from rocks, to stones, gravels, sands, silts and, the finest, clays.

For convenience, soils are allocated to textural classes on their sand – silt – clay components – so, sandy soils, loams and clay soils.

Sand particles are composed of quartz (Silicon dioxide and 0.05 – 2mm in diameter) cannot be moulded, possesses great drainage, aeration and warm up quickly, but are prone to drought. Clay particles are fine in size (less than0.002mm) have a huge surface area when compared to sand, so hold water and minerals, warms up slowly and can become waterlogged and anaerobic. Clay soils are plastic and stick together to form balls.

Soil spaces, pores, are important in holding air, water and allowing drainage, remembering that water does not only flow through spaces, it also sticks to surfaces.

A loam soil is one with a good mixture of all three mineral types.

A soil, when dried, and be separated into its components using sieves, so can be analysed and classified.

Soil Composition: Understanding Soil – The Self-Sufficiency DIY Info Zone
Comparing two soils. But not all woodland soils are Brown Earths as woodland can develop on any geological base material.

The clay particles are the chemically active soil minerals. Being small and electrically charged they absorb and release minerals (including iron) and can swell and shrink. [Our clay soil is often near waterlogged and sticky in winter, yet like dry concrete in summer, but has been improved with humus, sand and some fine gravel.]

Plants use the soil for anchorage, water supply, air (oxygen for aerobic respiration and nitrogen for nitrogen fixation), mineral nutrients (nitrates, phosphates etc) and as a buffer against changes in temperature and pH. In reality, roots take up a small, 5%, of the soil volume and occur mainly in the top 15cm and seldom deeper than 50cm. Tap roots in trees are uncommon. [So gardeners do not dig too deeply unless you need to break up a poor layer.] The Woodwide Web of fungal hyphae is important in not only woodland but open soils.

Rendzina_01
Rendzina with a subsoil lacking. Chalk or limestone bedrock.

Acidic soils can shed iron through leaching, and this may be deposited to form an iron pan, which stops water transmission. The lower parts of the soil, above the pan, then shows a distinct grey colouration. This is common in the New Forest of Hampshire, resulting in nutrient-poor soils that often are dominated by heathers and waterlogging. [Along the main roads, in the past, deep ploughing broke up the pan to encourage better herbage for the semi-wild ponies.]

A gley is a wetland soil (hydric soil) that, unless drained, is saturated with groundwater for long enough to develop a characteristic gleyic colour pattern. … They are found in depression areas and low landscape positions with shallow groundwater.

What is soil? Soil is a combination of four main components: - ppt video  online download

To explore soils in Southern England I would suggest a weekend in Purbeck. There you will be able to explore the chalky hills of Ballard Down, the acidic sandy heathlands at Arne, sand dune development at Studland and the waterlogged environment of Wareham Forest. Add in cream teas at Worth Matravers, early spider orchids at Dancing Ledge, the Saxon church and walls of Wareham and one has perfection.

A New Year Resolution for you … look at the soil and, perhaps, take a photo or two to build up a small portfolio of different types. It all adds that little touch of interest to a wander.

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How about Botany 1 and 2?

Algae? Slime moulds? Mosses? These are the neglected organisms, but fascinating.

Wildlife and its environment

David Beeson December 2021

We all do it. We explore the world around us and look for that special insect / plant / view. I do. If an orchid is in around my eyes zoom in … perhaps too rapidly. Perhaps it is not that one special plant that should be taking my notice but the total environment that allows that organism to exist there at all. Conservation should not be about one organism but the environment in which it exists.

Wildlife in the garden. While urban UK is a fox heaven, rural areas see high anti-fox activity. So, for us, foxes are rare and nocturnal.

I had the old-style view thrust in my face when, in the 1970s, I set up a two-day event to alert the UK public about the demise of the otter, Lutra lutra. The mammal was nearing extinction due to pollution, old-style  human persecution and inhumane hunting. I wished to advertise the event with the RSPB (Bird organisation) in their magazine. I was refused on the grounds that the otter was not a bird! That would not happen now, indeed their magazine title does not even mention a bird, it is called Nature’s Home and much of what they aim to achieve is through enhancing and restoring environments.

So, why does that orchid live there? What should we first consider when we head out into that amazing natural world?

Sure, you know the answer already, and almost certainly do it unconsciously. Firstly, what is the geology? That influences the topography, the soil type and structure. I try to see a soil profile: to view the topsoil, sub-soil and bedrock. A drop of dilute acid will fizz if calcium is present, giving a soil that may only suit calcicoles (Calcium lovers, such as wild clematis). If there is no calcium other plants will flourish, possibly even calcifuges (Plants that cannot grow with calcium in quantity. Yet, they need some to allow cell walls to stick together.).

Delicate UK hairbells are plants that enjoy a thing grassy niche. They cope well with acidic and alkaline soils and are great in pots.

Rock hardness may result in poor water transmission and a dip will become waterlogged, and the soil anaerobic – a gleyed soil. [Gleying is essentially the process of waterlogging and chemical ‘reduction’ in soils. In waterlogged soils, where water replaces air in pores, oxygen is quickly used up by microbes feeding on soil organic matter. … that leaves the soil a grey or bluish colour.] Few plants relish such a site and biodiversity could be low … but still interesting.

Around Andover the greatest geological diversity is around Kingsclere. Do explore that area on a geology map.

Climate.

Weather in the UK mountains is easy: If you can see the distant mountains it is going to rain; if you cannot see those mountains, it is raining.

Climate too is crucial to life. As we climb higher temperatures fall. [Near the Earth’s surface, air gets cooler the higher you climb. As you ascend a mountain, you can expect the air temperature to decrease by 6.5 degrees C for every 1000 meters you gain. This is called the standard  lapse rate.] And, as we move north, the tilt of the Earth ensures average temperatures fall, and head east in the UK and rainfall decreases. Andover sits in a sweet spot! Just like in the Three Bears Story .. the perfect porridge for me.

Aspect influences too, with a south-facing slope far warmer than its north-facing twin, and may exhibit a different biodiversity. Certainly, pearl-bordered fritillaries in the UK breed almost exclusively on south-facing, bracken-clothed hillsides.

David Bellamy, a botanist popular in 1970s,  in his booklet “Bellamy’s Britain” reduced a local climate to a single diagram. It allows places to be compared, and so hints at the vegetation to be encountered. Of course, it is easy to cheat – look in the BSBI’s Atlas [BSBI.org] or local versions, often from Wildlife Trusts, and they record what experts say is in that spot. Mammals (Mammal Society) and invertebrates also have distributions mapped. Yet, most wildlife enthusiasts prefer to search out the flora and fauna for themselves.

Climate diagrams

There are generalisations that can be made about flora. The north and west of the UK, being damp, cool and often with acidic soils has a tendency to naturally have dwarf shrubs as the basic vegetation. The Midlands, South and South-east tussock (grasses) and rosette plants. Parts of the extreme east can be dry and annuals or Mediterranean plants are commoner. The extreme west grows wonderful ferns, lichens and liverworts., yet these will be uncommon on the sands of Dorset.

Plants and animals have their natural niche.

We once grew our own local flora in a well-prepared garden border. Wow, did they grow! What grew to 10cm in the wild hit 100cm. We sometimes forget how held back organisms are in their wild conditions. We did.

So, the sermon for today is: buy a local geology map, that will heavily hint at the soil type and make your plant hunting a bit more scientific. And, keep an eye out for natural soil profiles.

Help! What is this? I have no idea.

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Keep safe.

Odonata Roundup

Highlights of Andover’s Odonata 2021

We entered into 2021 with an all-out attack on Covid that, as the spring got underway and summer approached, seemed to be putting the disease on the back foot. Perhaps a more normal season was to be cautiously anticipated. The weather, however, had other ideas. February, and the first two spring months of March and April, were dominated by a bitterly cold northerly wind. Spring sightings of hibernating butterflies, such as Red Admirals, Peacocks and Small Tortoiseshells, were few and far between. Encouragingly, on the very rare occasions when the temperature did rise enough to draw them out, their numbers were respectably average. A warm day on 17 April gave me a count of 15 Peacock butterflies around our local Rooksbury Lake, which is the highest count I’ve had at that time of year. On the same day Commas and Brimstones were also well represented.

The cold temperatures meant that emergences of all insects tended to be late. It also seemed to me that the emergence periods were extended, with lower numbers appearing but over a longer period of time. I found my first Grizzled Skipper on Stockbridge Down on 19 April, with the temperature a dizzy 18C. Numbers of this species remained steady but subdued right the way through May and June, with individuals still around in July. The same was true of the other early Skipper, the Dingy. Green Hairstreaks also seemed to be around for rather longer than usual.

Even though the northerly wind cleared away as we moved towards summer the sky remained overcast more often than not, with lowish temperatures, and commonly accompanied by strong and frequently gusty winds. Nevertheless, insects only get one go at this thing called life and, as they say, the show must go on. It did take until the middle of May, though. At long last, on the 14th of the month, visiting the “secret pond” not far from Andover, I found my first Damselflies, 7 Large Red and an Azure. This is a teneral to immature male Large Red:

Immature Large Red

The larger lakes here, namely Rooksbury, Charlton and Anton, took longer to get under way. I would imagine this is simply because they contain a rather larger body of water which would, of course, take that bit longer to warm up. When they did, the result was disappointing. In 2018 and 2019 the sheer number of Damselflies was staggering. Last year they dropped off a cliff, and this year was no different. My current theory on this is that there is a dance going on with parasites. Odonata fall prey to two different kinds of parasite, internal and external. The external parasites are predominately Water Mite larvae, while the internal are Gregarines. Both attack the nymph while the insect in its aquatic, juvenile form. The Water Mites attach themselves to the underside of the nymph, mainly the thorax and the forward abdominal sections, while the protozoan Gregarines set up home in the creature’s gut. Larger and territorial species of Odonata, which basically means Dragonflies, appear to be much less vulnerable to these parasites than the smaller more communal ones, meaning Damselflies.

In a parasitic cycle large numbers of the host species support an ever-increasing population of the parasite, until such a point as the number of parasites overwhelms the host species. Then the population of the host species falls, often quite dramatically. As a result of this, of course, the population of the parasite also falls, which then allows the numbers of the host species to build up again … until the cycle is repeated. It will take several years observation to conclude that is what is happening here. In the meantime, all I can say is that Damselfly numbers were very low, as they were last year.

Notably, I did not see a single Broad-bodied Chaser this year, and none of my contacts locally reported seeing them either. If anyone reading this is also an Odonata hunter in their local area I would be interested to hear of their own observations of this species.

On 12 June I had my first highlight of the year. As yet we do not have Four-spotted Chasers breeding locally. There is usually one sighted somewhere, and usually it is on Anton Lake, but this year it was the turn of my “secret pond”:

Four-spotted Chaser

This is a fresh young male. He spent an afternoon giving me some excellent opportunities with the camera and, while I have chosen this one for this piece, there is at least one more very different one that I will be putting in my 2021 Photogallery – expect this in January/February.

My next personal highlight was this young lady:

Black-tailed Skimmer, female.

This is a female Black-tailed Skimmer. There is nothing rare about Black-tailed Skimmers, they are common all the way up to above the Midlands, and this year seemed to be a good one for them around Andover. The excitement came because females of Dragonflies are not seen anywhere near as frequently as the males. This is because male behaviour is to stake out a claim to a stretch of bank or reed bed, to patrol it waiting for a female to come by, and then to romance her and hopefully mate. The females, on the other hand, are usually fertilised very soon after emergence, and then they are focussed on egg-laying. This activity takes them down into the reeds, where their wings beating against the leaves can be heard but the insect can be difficult to see … or to photograph.

Another behavioural characteristic of many Odonata is that, when freshly emerged, they will often fly some distance away from the birthing pond or lake to assume full adult colouration. Our local wood, Harewood Forest, is known for Broad-bodied Chasers, Black-tailed Skimmers and even Emperors. I found the lady pictured in a small meadow just away from Rooksbury Lake, on the 9th of July.

Another highlight, for the same reason, was this female Emperor:

Emperor, female

I found her in the same meadow on 11 August.

Golden-ringed Dragonflies also had an excellent year, also nearly all the insects I saw were male:

Golden-ringed, male

The River Anton runs into and around Rooksbury Lake and this was something of a hotspot for them. The meadow mentioned above, just off the Lake, was the place to look, and throughout late July and into September you could all but guarantee finding at least two resting on the blackberry bushes that run down the East side. This was very different to previous years when a very occasional sighting of an individual, perhaps only once or twice through the season, was more the norm.

The later Hawkers didn’t really start appearing until the end of August, mainly I think because the weather was so poor until we got into that month. Migrant Hawkers seemed especially late – please feel free to contact us and let us know what things were like in your area. While Migrant numbers were good, when they eventually got around to appearing, Southern Hawkers are not exactly an Andover speciality. I have managed to get a couple of reasonable shots of the female over the years but the only male I’d caught was at best so-so. Consequently, this was something of a target species. On the 12 August I was rewarded with one landing a few yards ahead of me, again in that same meadow already mentioned:

Southern Hawker, male

Over the next few weeks I saw a male regularly and managed to get rather better shots than this one – see the Gallery for this year when I’ve chosen the shots. I don’t know if the insects I saw were the same one or whether the species simply had a good year in 2021. Naturally, I hope it was the latter.

Of course, those of you who regularly visit this site will know that not all the excitement around Andover this year was confined to Dragonflies. Damselflies, which often front the season, might have started late but they ended up providing the most thrilling headlines. Through into June it was dullsville, but then I was sent a series of photos from a local birder by the name of Brian Cartwright. Like most birders he prefers the winter months, as the leaves have gone from the trees and the interesting migrant species are moving in. When the warmer weather arrives, and the leaves are hiding his quarry away, like many birders, he turns his attention to whatever else he can find. He regularly sends his shots through to me and I can then identify any Odonata, sometimes along with beetles and other bugs he has found. Normally, he haunts Anton Lake, but on the 23 June he had managed to escape to Stockbridge Common, and sent through a series of shots for me to peruse. Most were male and female Banded Demoiselles, which are a veritable plague up and down the local chalk streams, but tagged on the end was a mildly blurry image of a small, blue Damselfly. I recognised it immediately, not because I see them everywhere all the time but because it is one of the country’s rarest Damselflies and something of a Hampshire speciality. I wasted no time but went straight down to the Common the very next day to try and find them for myself. I was successful within a minute of starting to hunt and, in spite of a horrible wind, managed to pick up some good shots:

Southern Damselfly, male

This is a male Southern Damselfly. They are basically found on the Itchen around Winchester, on the River Test around Mottisfont, and there is a colony over in Pembrokeshire. I won’t go into details here, I wrote an article covering my adventures earlier in the year, but the next day I returned, to examine how extensive the colony was, and got several shots of females of the species:


Southern Damselfly, female

Back at the end of July 2017 I had discovered Small Red-eyed Damselflies on Charlton Lake. Anton Lake is just over half a mile away, as the crow flies, and I saw no reason why they shouldn’t be there as well. The problem was that the insect likes to perch on emergent and floating vegetation, and there was nothing anywhere near the bank of the lake. However, the wetter weather over the intervening period has raised the water level in the local lakes and encouraged growth of the horsetails and other water plants nearer to the shoreline. On top of this, this year has seen a spectacular bloom of aquatic moss over the surface of all three of our lakes, so, on 19 July, I visited Charlton Lake to see if I could find them. I counted several so, knowing that they were out, the next day I went to Anton Lake. I sat on a fishing pier at the East end of the Lake, beside what is known as the Tench Pond, and they were dancing around in front of me, with plenty of mating and egg-laying going on:

Small Red-eyed Damselfly, mating pairs

I already felt that the discovery of the large Southern Damselfly site on Stockbridge Common had made 2021 an outstanding year, but the fates had not yet finished with Andover! On 17 August Brian Cartwright, yes, that man again, took a photo of a red Darter and sent it to me. Again, as soon as I saw it, I knew exactly what it was:

Ruddy Darter, male

This is a male Ruddy Darter. Not the rarest insect in the world but, while Andover has an army of Common Darters, nobody has yet found a Ruddy Darter here, and certainly not managed to capture it on camera to provide the proof. I believe I’ve seen them at Rooksbury, one last year and one this, but without that photo it’s all just a maybe.

Brian came through again on 15th September from Anton Lake. Once more it was in a series of photos and, of course, I knew what it was as soon as I saw it:

Willow Emerald, male

This is a male Willow Emerald – note the pale stigmata towards the ends of the wings which are the diagnostic markings for this species. I have been searching for them for a while as I know they have been spreading across the country. I also believe that I got a glimpse of one at Rooksbury shortly after Brian sent me this.

Just when I thought the season was done another birder, by the name of Dave Piper, sent this through to me:

Common Emerald, male

This is a male Common Emerald Damselfly. This is not a rare Damselfly but he found it at Rooksbury Lake. They are not common at all in the Andover area, although there is a modest colony on Anton Lake, so it was excellent to find this one which suggests they may be expanding their area.

Now the season has come to a close, everything is shut down, the nights are drawing in and winter is setting its chill on us. It’s a time for going through all those photographs you took, sorting the wheat from the chaff, filing the good and binning the trash. Remembering those things you saw for the first time, identifying new places to hunt and dreaming of what you will find next year. The shortest day of the year is racing down upon us, then the days will slowly but surely grow longer. The sun will regain its warmth, the buds will burst and you will find a Peacock, resting just there, as you do every year on that first decent day … and a Tortoiseshell just over there.

When the warmth does eventually start waking everything up, get out there, get hunting. Look in places you never thought of looking before. Search all the old favourites, but try and look with new eyes. The climate is warmer than it used to be and species are moving northwards and establishing new colonies all across the country. They are there for you to find.

Until then … Merry Christmas!

John Solomon

http://www.nwhwildlife.org is the HOMEPAGE. Scroll down for 130+ ad-free articles.

The Blob – slime moulds / molds

David Beeson, December 2021

Some friends alerted me to a programme (The Blob) on BBC IPlayer about a most unlikely topic – slime moulds. If you have any curiosity about the oddities of this planet, this is the one to watch. You will be amazed.

Betty / Tony Rackham’s Dog’s Vomit slime mould. Fuligo septica from a Hampshire woodland.

I have grown these organisms in the past, but the TV programme can describe them better than me. Go on, search out The Blob.

But, see BOTANY 2 if you want more on slime moulds.

How to find BOTANY 2? Go to homepage: http://www.nwhwildlife.org and scroll down.

Riverfly Sampling

David Beeson, December 2021

River Test at Longparish

In Hampshire, we have some unique river systems. With chunks of the county dominated by chalky geology the rainwater is held in huge aquifers and only slowly released. It emerges comparatively warm in winter ( and remains cool in summer) and is enriched with dissolved calcium. The waters are usually crystal clear with the riverbed easily viewed, so the brown trout and waterweeds are easily seen. These should be treasured ecolological areas, yet society too often treats them poorly. Agricultural runoff, deliberate oil spills and sewage effluent all end up where it should certainly not be.

Riverfly Monitoring is an initiative spearheaded by the Riverfly Partnership which ensures that angling and conservation groups can take action to conserve the river environment by monitoring water quality. See: http://www.riverflies.org

Kick sampling

I monitor one site on the River Anton, within Andover. The River Anton feeds into the River Test north of Stockbridge. The monitoring is carried out by sampling the river’s invertebrates, some of which are termed riverflies.

Living in the river, and having a thin exoskeleton and possibly ultra-thin gill membranes, invertebrates are potentially killed by falls of oxygen concentrations or environmental pollutants. So, by establishing the ‘norm’ population of the ecosystem any population change could be due to a pollution incident. That data would then be shared with The Environment Protection Agency, who should be equipped to carry out further studies, mitigation and possibly legal action.

Stone washing

For those with local knowledge, my site is behind The Range / KFC just to the north of the inner ring road. It is downstream from Charlton Lakes and Shepherd’s Springs. There are other monitoring sites along the river, so a reasonably precise location of any ‘incident’ can be pinpointed.

It is a three-minute kick sample across the river’s width, plus a one-minute sampling of the larger riverbed stones by washing their surface. The river’s flow will push dislodged creatures into the downstream net.

With a flowing water system, most invertebrates dwell amongst the riverbed’s rocks, stones or weed. Once outside, and in the current, they will be transported away and possibly captured by the resident fish.

Once the capture has occurred the sample needs sorting. Others do this, I’m told, on the bank, I take it home to a more ‘relaxed’ table!

Caddis

Only specific inverebrates are counted as these are especially common and sensitive. I also captured fish (Bullheads), snails, beetles and worm-like fly larvae and expect to see leeches, caseless (web-spinning) caddis and waterlice at some stage. Lampreys, swan mussels and larger fish may also eventually be spotted.

Of the groups monitored I have yet to see Flat-bodied Hetageniidae and Caseless Caddis, although I have found the caddis previously.

Sample

What numbers have I found? Cased caddis in single figures, a single Mayfly ephemeridae, olives in tens, a single stonefly and always hundreds of Gammarus. Clearly, with such a short sampling time and conditions changing with the seasons, numbers will fluctuate, yet a pattern should soon be established.

I’m surprised by the low numbers of caddis and stoneflies as these seemed more frequent on previous studies, but it was a different sampling site with shallower water and more watercress and marsh vegetation. Everything makes a difference.

Sample

Homepage is: http://www.nwhwildlife.org. There you will find 130+ ad-free articles. Scroll down to seek out knowledge!

Cheers, David

Hampshire’s chalky landscape.

Life in the attic

David Beeson, November 2021

We live in the country with wild creatures all around, so it is inevitable that some will select to live with us. Some are benign, but ticks and fleas are certainly unwelcome. So, what has moved in?

Let’s start with the attic – the space between the roof and the ceiling.

Now I know this area quite well, having crawled over all of it fitting loft insulation and doing the inevitable ‘jobs’ …., yes, those irritating tasks with your nose rammed in the insulation and your hands delving into some dark spot to deal with something just out of reach. Sadly, it is also the crazy spot where the electricians fitted our solar meter that needs regular reading and also the place where small mammals regularly die, with inevitable consequences for them and us.

With a bit of investigating we have found our attic is the most desirable place for several mammals: brown rats, yellow-necked mice and pygmy shrews. Happily, the rats have avoided us for some time, not so the other two species.

Brown rats. These are excellent climbers and I spot them frequently ascending garden shrubs to access both flowers and fruits. When we had a tall thin conifer growing just outside our main patio window we could spot one climbing up the verticle trunk to access the roof. It took only seconds for it to climb up and a similar time for me to cut the plant down.

Having kept ex-laboratory rats as ‘running-around-the-house’ pets I’m aware how agile, intelligent and cute they are. I’m also aware that allowing one to sit inside my woolly results in nibbled woollies. So, I worry about nibbled wires in my loft … and so rats are classed as ‘unwelcome’.

On a nostalgic note, one of our rats loved drinking chocolate and orange peel. Sally dived from my lap into a cup of hot drinking chocolate (Requiring an instant cold bath) and decided to sit eating peel in an open fire … after it had just been lit. She survived both events. Our next pet rat fell down from some open-plan stairs, breaking her leg. The vet had her up and about inside a week.

Yellow-necked (and wood) mice. We have yellow-necked mice all around us and we live below them. I guess they must jump from surrounding vegetation onto our roof to gain access. We can occasionally hear them moving around and that prompts efforts to evict them. Luckily for us, they adore peanut butter and that does the trick time and time again.

If the mice are disturbed on our outside feeders they are fearless in dropping to the ground and they scamper off with speed, seemingly unhurt.

Yellow-necked mice are the main prey item for our resident tawny owls as both are active at night.

Mice: unwelcome guests.

Pygmy shrews. Now finding these in the attic was a big surprise. They are in the garden, yet spotted infrequently, and little wonder as most are thriving in the attic!

While rats and mice are rodents, and specialise in seeds, nuts and fruits, shrews are insectivores eating small animal life. They must be after woodlice, spiders and flies.

With their canine type dentition, they should have zero impact on our loft’s wires and they are not unwelcome guests, yet are evicted when caught.

With are currently unaware of attic bats, yet they are so small they could gain access and we know folks with bats. We have a garden bat box, however, that is mainly inhabited overnight by small birds and the small, black, dry dropping of bats have yet to be seen.

Wasps, bees and hornets are often seeking homes here. They seldom are spotted until late in the year and are not evicted unless they wish to home just outside the bathroom window. A female hornet was moved on by putting sticky tape over an air vent for a week. Spiders creep in yet they are not in great numbers even while flies do occur.

Sadly, we have no birds in the attic or under the eves. We are a bungalow and attempts to attract house martins have failed, even while swallows wish to nest in our hall and will fly around looking for a good location … given a chance. We have no local swifts.

Purchasing swift, swallow of martin nest boxes would be a great Xmas present for the right person.

Starling and sparrows have shunned our attractive accommodations.

ELSEWHERE in the UK, we hear stories of edible dormice and even pine martens living in roof spaces.

Around the house. Here we spot woodlice, archaic silverfish and this year black ground-beetles that emerge only at night. As the beetles are carnivorous we guess they must be after the woodlice. In a previous home we had palmate newts as occasional visitors.

So, what do you live alongside? Do tell us!

http://www.nwhwildlife.org

Autumn has finally arrived

David Beeson, mid-November 2021

With three frosts throwing their silvery whiteness over our garden many of the plants have closed down for the winter. Probably these types are more southerly in their origins, yet many blooms are still attracting the honey and bumblebees, as well as the remaining wasps.

While the light-absorbing pigments in chlorophyll work regardless of the temperature they need enzymes to move the grabbed energy into carbohydrates in the Calvin Cycle … and enzymes are temperature sensitive. As a result, photosynthesis shuts down to a lower level. Not off, just lower. Less food results in a lower metabolism and fewer flowers.

Soils retain their heat better than the air, so roots can remain active despite falling temperatures. However, below about 4 degree Celsius most soil water capture shuts down, but that is some way off yet.

So, our sturdier plants are throwing a splattering of flowers. And, together with the variegated and coloured leaves and stems the garden remains attractive.

We have two species of viburnum currently in flower: tinus and fragrans. Last year the dormice were eating these blooms, and their droppings turned white. The sweetness of the flowers’ scent suggests a good flow of nectar, and that could be why the flowers are consumed. It also suggests why our dormice remain active when it is said that their woodland cousins have moved into hibernation.

V. tinus
Adjacent woodland, over the fence!

In the garden the meadows are now 90% cut, the remaining section being left for the short-tailed voles. Their neighbours, slow worms, have now moved into underground hibernation and have not been spotted for several weeks.

Deep black compost is being transferred onto selected flower beds to increase the humus level, and in spring it will break down to fertilize the plants. We use minimal chemical fertilizers, and would avoid it now as it will not be absorbed but merely washed into the water table.

Our patch of land feels strangely devoid of birds. The seed feeders are attracting a handful of goldfinches and tits, yet not in the numbers expected. Winter migrants, if around, are elsewhere and even the tawny owls are quiet. A species I’m pleased to not see is the pheasant. This introduced bird I consider an ecological pollutant. The ‘sporting’ (I.e., killing) estate adjacent has not released any locally, but have in other locations. I looked to see if I could demand the government stop local pheasant releases, yet this is only possible if Harewood is a SSSI. Surprisingly it is not, despite being an ancient deciduous woodland.

Many leaves are holding on longer this year.
Plant mixture.
Only the section on the left remains uncut. Wintergreen orchids are already in leaf in this meadow.
The plumes of the pampas grass are visible from the sitting room, which is why it was planted in the meadow.
Marigolds
Nemesia
Some plants just keep flowering!

Homepage: http://www.nwhwildlife.org scroll down for 130 ad-free articles

The Magpie Fungus and its friends

David Beeson, Late October 2021

Harewood Forest, an ancient woodland in North Hampshire, is mainly populated by pedunculate oak trees. Most of these trees are one hundred to one hundred and fifty years old as many were previously culled during the First World War for the production of gunpowder. In a few surface chalky locations beech trees grow and have reached nearly to the edge of the atmosphere and their branches play host to raptor nests. Beneath their shedding canopy of brown-orange leaves few plants thrive, amongst them are the beautifully flowered white helleborines and their youngsters are still showing green leaves even as their parents are sleepily dormant.

Discarded beech leaves are still rich in energy and nutrients, and they will feed plenty of invertebrate detritivores and fungi. Autumn is the ‘pay day’ for the woodland floor organisms.

Fungi may show themselves only occasionally, yet they are here in abundance. And now is when they show their spore-producing bodies.

The Magpie Fungus (Coprinopsis picacea) is scattered here beneath the huge cathedral trunks. It is a rare organism, yet is said to spread even as far as the USA.

Young Magpie Fungus

Although most of this fungus lives invisibly in the soil as a saprotroph with its fine network of filaments decomposing plant life, its fruiting bodies are outrageously exhibitionist. However, it is not a fungus I will carry home for food, as it is said to have disastrous consequences on humans.

Probably, its single hyphae are cytoplasmic. That is, the strand has no cross cell walls … so it is not divided into cells like most organisms. Individual hyphae are part of the subsoil mass called the mycelium, which is the organism. The fruiting body being a transitory structure that grows rapidly with an uptake of water into the hyphae, and not by cell numbers increasing.

A handsome organism

Invertebrates carry out the first stage in the decay of the leaves, cutting them and egesting what they fail to capture in their guts. The fungal threads secrete exo-enzymes to break this down. Once the nutrients are absorbed by the hyphae threads those resources will be employed to grow the network; which is said to be extensive.

As with flowering plants, each fungal species will survive in its own niche. Some live on growing trees, others on twigs, more on decaying wood and the Magpie Fungus on the organic matter in the top soil.

It is easy to think of fungi as plants, which they are not. Fungi share little in common with their green neighbours. Not their method of nutrition, not their body structure or histology, nor their life cycle or reproductive strategy. Fungi are fungi. Think Athlete’s Foot as a comparison to a Giant Redwood tree!

Fully open and about 30cm tall
And then it was gone …

Elsewhere many different fungi are showing themselves. (Corrections of identifications appreciated!)

Amanita muscaria, young Fly Agarics
Agaricus silvcola?
This ring is about five metres in diameter. (Fungus as above)
Puffball, Lycoperdon perlatum releases spores through a central opening when the body is fully ripe.
Dead wood is often quickly colonised by fungi. Here the mycelium’s enzymes must be digesting the cellulose of the trunk with cellulase enzyme.

http://www.nwhwildlife.org is the HOME PAGE. Scroll down for articles on the fungal close relative – Slime Molds … fungi that move off resembling an animal. Amazing.

Autumn at Hilliers

David Beeson, 26th October 2021

The Hillier Garden, near Romsey in Hampshire, is owned by Hampshire County Council and is a gem of a botanic and popular garden. The site was originally the home of Sir Harold Hillier, who established the small but, up-market, garden business that wins gold after gold at the Chelsea Flower Show. These gardensshould be on everyone’s ‘go to’ list, not only for the trees but also the huge herbaceous border, winter garden and the conserved native wildlife – including good numbers of orchids. The popularity of the site can be assessed by the THREE eating spots, including a distinctly good formal restaurant. (Yes, we did sample.)

It is an all-year location with a large Winter Garden with solid all-weather paths.

With November fast approaching the autumnal colours are developing, yet slower this year than perhaps I might have expected. Witch hazels, dogwoods and liquidambers were especially colourful, and their reds and oranges contrasted with the range of other foliage colours.

We all fall into the rule that leaves are green. Of course, that is far from the truth and gardeners use the range of foliage colours to paint a ‘gardening picture’ as much as can be achieved with flower impact.

Leaves are light energy harvesters. Photons arrive from the sun, and through photosynthesis, can have their energy trapped into chemical bonds. It is never going to be 100% efficient, so the leaf inevitably warms up. Once dropping light levels, and possibly temperature, mean that the process is no longer efficient the leaves may need to be shed. [Warm climate plants ( and species like the hollies and evergreen conifers) can hold their valuable leaves for many years, yet even then shaded leaves will be discarded.]

To harvest the maximum amount of energy will ensure a range of photosynthetic pigments will need to be manufactured, each absorbing a different spectrum. Those pigments will change with the quality of the available light, for example, the spectrum of light reaching beneath a canopy will not be the same as arriving there.

There are four main pigments: Chlorophylls A and B (green to the eye), Xanthophyll (yellows) and Carotenoids (oranges). Chlorophylls are dominant yet break down first, exposing the underlying pigments.

There are also anthocyanins; these are intense red pigments that aren’t made during the summer, only appearing with the final group of the autumnal colours. These molecules also give the red hue to apples, cranberries and raspberries.

EXPERIMENT: extracting photosynthetic pigments.

  1. Collect a range of leaves of different colours.
  2. Cut with scissors and crush them with mortar and pestle.
  3. Cut blotting paper or thick paper towels into circles that overlap Ramekin dishes. Cut a slot to fold down, like a tongue, into the dish’s base.
  4. Extract the leaf pigments by mixing the crushed material with isopropanol (an alcohol), which can be bought on the Internet. Extraction will take only a couple of minutes.
  5. Using a fine tube or wire or toothpick or similar, add small quantities to the centre of your circle. If possible, dry with a hairdrier (but avoid splattering the extract.). Make a concentrated spot, with a ‘more-the-better’ attitude.
  6. Add the alchol to the dish, locate your circle and push tongue into the alcohol. Sit back and wait about 30 minutes.
  7. The isopropanol will run up the tongue, meet the concentrated extract and spread out over the circle. The pigments do not have the same solubility and will move at varying speeds. You will see the different pigments, especially if the paper is dried.
  8. By now you will have guessed that these or similar pigments are found eleswhere in the plant kingdom. You may wish to explore carrots, beetroot or rose petals.

It is possible to re-extract each pigment from your chromatogram and check how each absorbs the colours / wavelengths of light. This is shown below. You will see that green light is poorly absorbed. It is not used in photosynthesis and is either reflected or passes through, ensuring plant leaves often look green.

If you are given a horrid plant that you want to kill, but it must appear you are looking after it … leave it in green light! Photosynthesis cannot use green light and your plant will die.

Colour, chlorophyll and chromatography – Science in School

Photosynthesis uses mainly blue and red light. Green is wasted.

Now some images from Hillier Garden.

Hillier House
Lake
Liquidamber
Art in the garden
Dogwood to the front right
Acer colour
Witch hazel and heather
Ophiopogon in the front
Hydrangea
Art in the garden
Swamp cypress
Art in the garden
There are many helleborine orchid seed spikes amongst the shrubs.

http://www.nwhwildlife.org is the HOME PAGE. Visit and scroll down for 130 ad-free articles.

You will discover material on: dragonflies, orchids, Okefenokee, watermeadows and so much more. All for free. The most popular article is on Alternation of Generations (Plants are clever 2). Do you know what it is?

The English Cotswolds

David Beeson, October 2021

The Cotswolds are a limestone area in Central Southern England, a region of generally gentle rolling hills that were once dominated by sheep farming (now largely arable). It was rich in the middle ages, from the wool, and much of its character remains unsullied by C21. This is not an ecological article, merely a few images of some of the towns, gardens and numerous country houses to the west of Oxford. So, sit back and just take in the sights.

Burford is a small town perched between a steep hill and a narrow medieval bridge. It boasts many up-market hotels and restaurants, bespoke shops and glorious architectural details on the properties. It is a street where it pays to be alert to details … so, ignore the shops!

Homes along Burford Hill.
Typical house with the glorious Cotswold stone.
Not a standard doorway from an English housing estate.
A house window. Surely, this had to have been a church in its early days.

Even early on a Sunday morning the street was filled with cars, so, to gain more atmosphere I have selected only the upper parts of these properties.
Often properties that appear to have plaster or brick on their surface are timber-framed underneath.
An upper window near the bridge.
The entrance was probably for a horse and carriage.
The massive Burford church.
Snowshill House is not a stunner from the outside, but …. . The cottage is the building to the left.

https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/snowshill-manor-and-garden

Best to look up details on the NT website.

The adjacent cottage was the home of the last owner (before the National Trust) and this was his bathroom – yes, honestly.
The bedroom. But, you ask, ‘Where is the bed?’ Behind the curtains on the left and inside the cupboard.
This is the end of the cottage.
Most recently the house was used only as a personal museum. Each room containing an eclectic array of objects and often several clocks – all set to different times.
Details of part of the estate.
Sezincote House and orangery

https://www.sezincote.co.uk/

Again, go here for details.

Yes, a little unusual in its design.
Part of the roof
Indian-style to some of the gardens too.
I thought the gardens beautiful. In stark contrast to the renowned Hidcote Manor Gardens that we found uninspiring (for the second and last time.)

So, a stimulation of the English Cotswolds. We also walked and visited nature reserves, yet much of the flora has gone to sleep.

Sleep well.

Simply mice on the feeder

David Beeson, 8th October

With the wildlife camera back in action, here are a few images and comments.

A UK dormouse arrives and the other mice have a chat with it.
Dormice are somewhat round and cuddly as they approach hibernation.
Hairy ears, fluffy tail and big eyes says ‘dormouse’.
I have yet to capture a dormouse image of them eating other than head down.
Yellow-necked mice appear to dominate around here. If I find a dead mouse it is a yellow-necked. They are far bigger than the woodmice.
Voles dominate the feeder in daylight, the mice at night.

http://www.nwhwildlife.org and scroll down for over 120 ad-free articles.

Someone asked the other day, “Who reads the articles?” The answer is not what I expected when it was set up: few locally, but about 60% are in the UK, after that it is USA, Canada, India, China, Russia, Philippines and virtually every country except South America. It is now a worldwide package and the most read is: Plants are Clever 2.

Around 1300 articles are downloaded each month.

See Mammal Society: Dormouse_complete.pdf for more information on the species

Mammal.org.uk

Perhaps butterflies are not as nice as you think.

An article lifted from The Guardian newspaper, today 29th September. This newspaper is at the forefront with environmental articles and, at least, a scan of their articles is worthwhile. The are UK and worldwide editions.

Why the copy? I believe it offers a new insight into the world around us. Generally we see butterflies as the attractive, good-guys of the world. But, like most organisms they can have a darker side.

Occasionally a similar milkweed species arrives in the UK. Milkweeds are quite common on the west coast of USA. I have encountered two hibernation groves in central California.

Also, it is worth noting that male butterflies fight over access to females, and you will spot this in your own gardens. Generally butterfly males fly in vertical circles around a potentially receptive female in a pre-mating dance wafting sex pheromones in her direction. How the females decide to mate or to ignore the male is a mystery to me. Information please!

Now, all thoughts of sex are probably on hold for surviving adult UK butterflies as they stock up with resources before the overwintering species prepare to hide away in hibernation. Other species will spend the winter as eggs or underground as larvae.

I delay cutting some parts of my wild meadows until I can be confident that insect larvae are safely underground. It is also delayed to ensure slow worms have hibernated (they can be killed during the cutting process) and to give some space for the short-tailed voles.

The article:

The butterfly that drinks caterpillars alive to bolster its pheromones

Milkweed butterflies in Indonesia have been discovered to supplement their diets with the juices of larvae

Two orange butterflies on purple flowers in a green field
While butterflies usually feed on nectar, males may supplement their diet with other chemicals to produce mating pheromones Photograph: Scott Gaulin/AP

The complexity of insect behaviours is a frontier we have barely explored. As conspicuous, charismatic creatures, butterflies get more attention than most, and yet there is still so much to discover.

Adult butterflies usually feed on nectar, although some, such as male purple emperors, enjoy the minerals from muddy puddles and animal turds. But milkweed butterflies in North Sulawesi, Indonesia, have been discovered to feed upon live, dead and dying caterpillars.

A red admiral on a buddleia
UK’s Red Admiral butterfly. Does it too have a darker side?

To produce mating pheromones that attract females, male butterflies may supplement their diet with other chemicals. Usually these are obtained from plants but the milkweeds have been observed scratching caterpillars and apparently imbibing their juices with their proboscis.Advertisement

“The caterpillar larvae would contort their bodies rapidly in what appeared to be futile attempts to deter the scratching,” said Yi-Kai Tea from the University of Sydney, who observed this never-previously-reported behaviour with colleagues.

Even stranger is the fact that the milkweed butterflies are feeding off similar caterpillars to their offspring – not their own species but from their own subfamily.

Like all good scientific discoveries, this “kleptopharmacophagy” – chemical theft – only raises further questions.

A Journey Through Central Wales – The Cambrian Mountains

David Beeson, late September 2021

Central Wales is probably less visited than the north and south coasts, yet for wildlife it offers some gems. It is a largely remote area of high hills, although some people feel they are mountains. Sheep dominate the lower elevations, and their winter pastures are so improved that only grass seems to grow, so, like many parts of our small island, one has to search out wildlife locations.

On the A470, just north of Rhayader is Gilfach, a 166 hectare Radnorshire Wildlife Trust reserve. For centuries Gilfach was a working hill farm, yet its owners did not follow the trend to adopt new agricultural techniques – their winter pastures were neither ploughed, reseeded, nor chemically treated. As a result, it has kept its floral diversity and the resulting food chains. It is a place with multiple habitats, from high open land down to marshy meadows and a salmon river … and a diversity of wildlife (55 species of breeding birds, 6 bats and 413 lichens).

Restored longhouse.

The reserve is adjacent to the A470, with all-weather seating, good car parking and picnic spots. Even folks with limited mobility can access many locations, with a small road giving good routes. Paths, varying from easy to demanding, so encourage walkers to explore the farm.

The human centre of the hill farm was a 1600s longhouse that gave human accommodation with the animal sheds attached. Nearby is a dipper-watching hide.

Bell heather, common heather and gorse bring a blaze of colour to the hillside in late summer. Their nectar-rich flowers attract insects like the mountain bumble bee (Bombus monticola) and fox moth.

Marteg river has otters and leaping salmon (November)

Butterflies love the wildflowers and grasses with the small pearl-bordered fritillary, common blue and green hairstreak to name but a few found here.  Over seventy different types of bird have been recorded with over two thirds choosing to breed here.  Redpoll, yellowhammer, whinchat, linnet, red kite, spotted and pied flycatcher and cuckoo all spend time at Gilfach.

The Marteg river runs through the reserve, with occasional visits from otters and a winter run of salmon joining the brown trout and bullhead fish.

Our visit was in late September, so much of the flora was past its best, yet the diversity was clear and a spring trip to see its oak woodlands filled with bluebells and stitchwort would be wonderful. Then too the insect diversity would be driving the insectivorous food chain.

https://www.rwtwales.org/our-projects/exploring-gilfach

Sessile oak woodland, with an adjacent badger set.

Combining Gilfach with the Elan Valley, with its RSPB reserve, would be a good contrast.

Not too distant to Gilfach is the 200 hectare Hafod Estate, with excellent public access. It is a few miles south and east of Devil’s Bridge – near Cwmystwyth / Pontrhydygroes. It is signposted from Devil’s Bridge.

A large car park with limited picnic tables and toilets is provided. Disabled access would be demanding. This is a remote location.

If you are a mammal person this could be the spot for you. There are pine martens, otters, badgers and many other species … and a remote cottage to hire. Or stay at Devil’s Bridge and enjoy the steam mountain railway.

Extreme telephoto of the Vale of Rheidol Mountain Railway as Number 7 climbs the gradient.

Hafod has a great range of walks, often following the Ystwyth River that finally enters the Irish Sea / Cardigan Bay at Aberystwyth. Being high-hill-country the slopes are clothed in commercial conifers, plus sessile oaks and rowan.

An open area of Hafod.
Ystwyth River
Hafod – reintroduced martens live here and have spread to the coast.

Just north of Aberystwyth is the coastal village of Borth. Adjacent are Ynyslas and Cors Fochno (Borth Bog), both part of the Dyfi National Nature Reserve and places I have visited for over 50 years.

The prevailing winds have, over hundreds of years, have whipped up the beach sand and deposited it on Ynyslas – it is now a calcareous dune system.

Spurges are, here, the first colonisers of the beach sand. Marram grass will then send its roots deep into the sand to establish the dunes.
Human traffic is destroying some parts of the dunes.
Dunes
Calcarious grasslands are maintained by rabbits, but they become very wet in winter…. hence the marsh helleborines and marsh orchids.
Rabbits everywhere! But they provide food for others in the food chain – polecats and foxes.

Parking is available, and there is a visitor centre with loos. The downside being the dogs. How a NNR can allow itself to become a dog walking / running area is beyond me. It is a disgrace. Nature reserves are few in number and should be reserved for nature, with even much restricted human access and no dogs. The RSPB generally gets this right.

As at Studland (Dorset) the sand dunes show succession from pure sand hills adjacent to the beach through to mature dunes stabilized by grasses. With the calcium carbonated seashells incorporated into the thin soil it is akin to a chalk downland in its mature flora.

Summer brings a varied display of flowers to the reserve.  Marsh and bee orchids appear in the early summer in the dune slacks (the wet areas of the dunes) followed by pyramidal orchids. There are also colourful saltmarsh flowers, sea pink, sea aster, sea spurrey. Butterflies and day-flying moths fill the air, while dragonflies dart around the raised bog. You might spot wildlife like osprey and otter on the estuary.

Seedheads of the marsh helleborine orchids

For me the special plant is the late-flowering marsh helleborine orchid. This is generally uncommon but flowers in profusion here. Animals include adders, grass snake, sand and common lizards, myriads of rabbits and night-hunting polecats. The Welsh vernal mining bee is active during the spring. Nightjars can be heard in the summer.

With up to 8 metres of peat beneath the surface the raised bog of Cors Fochno is a huge carbon store. At one time the site was destined to become a potato farm, yet it was rightly saved.

Borth village spreads along the coastline with Borth Bog behind.

The waterlogged bog surface is a hostile place for most plants, and those that thrive here, like bog cotton, bog asphodel and bog myrtle, all have special adaptations.

Carnivorous plants also come into their own here including all three native species of sundews.

You’ll have to work hard to find access to the bog. Adjacent to the Ynyslas to Tre-Taliesin (B4353) road is a miniscule car park set down from the road. Pull in here and open the gate, ignoring warnings! Drive down the track to a car park and one can access the boardwalk from here.

The acidic, wet conditions encourage mosses. The most important bog specialist plants (and the main peat-formers), are the sphagnums, which form colourful carpets on the open bog and raise its surface into a shallow dome as their remains accumulate. Fifteen species of bog moss occur here including three national rarities.

Heathers are common here, together with myrtles and bog rosemary. Reptiles and amphibians enjoy the location.

Monitoring Borth Bog
Bog heathers

RSPB’s 800 hectare Ynys-hir is just a few miles towards Machynlleth. It has a difficult access, but it is well worth it. There is a visitor centre, car park and four diverse habitats: wet land, woodland, hillside and estuary marshes.

Spring Watch featured the reserve a few years back and showed snakes being predated by buzzards, and then fed to their young. Not so now. On talking to a warden, we learned that a nearby estate had started releasing thousands of non-native pheasants; they have spread and eaten out the reserve’s reptiles. All so idiots can shoot at such slow-moving birds that it are difficult to miss. Breeding and releasing non-native birds should be banned. If people want to eat them, keep them like chickens.

Salt marsh with an otter playpool.

The RSPB says of its reserve: There are an exciting mixture of habitats to be explored at Ynys-hir. Stunning Welsh oak woodland which in spring has breeding pied flycatcher, redstart, wood warbler and lesser spotted woodpecker as well as the early spring flowers such as bluebells. The estuary saltmarsh and lowland wet grasslands support breeding lapwing and redshank. During the autumn and winter months this habitat is important for Greenland white-fronted geese, golden plover, lapwing, wigeon and barnacle geese. Other areas to explore include freshwater pools, reedbeds and peat bog. Birds to be seen here include grasshopper warblers, water rail with hen harrier in the winter. There are many species of dragonfly and butterflies including small red dragonfly and brimstone butterflies, otters, common lizard, slow worms and grass snakes.

https://www.rspb.org.uk/reserves-and-events/reserves-a-z/ynys-hir

Finally, Hafren Forest. This is located near Llyn Clywedog, a lake / dam that attempts to control some of the flow down the River Severn – that starts here.

River Severn at Hafren
Insectivorous butterworts
The Cambrian Mountains are often carpeted with mosses. Here you can see both generations – the gametophyte is the green plant while the sporophyte is the brown capsule. For more information see the full article on mosses.

Hafren is a huge forestry site, with car park, picnic tables and toilets. Plenty of signed walks can be taken that mostly wander along the river valleys. We encountered an uncommon carnivorous plant on our rambles – butterworts. It was just a single colony, but possibly 100 plants on a steep wet slope.

https://naturalresources.wales/days-out/places-to-visit/mid-wales/hafren-forest/?lang=en

You will be able to spot ospreys on the lake and explore lead mines alongside the dam wall.

Dam wall and 1860s lead mine.

We spent a glorious two-week on tour through Central Wales. One hotel will soon be quite exceptional: The Black Mountain Lodge near Glasbury-on-Wye. The current owners only took over the place in May 2021 and, given six months, the few early snags will be sorted. The food was exceptional. Great location for walking the Wye Valley and the Black Mountains of the Brecon Beacons National Park.

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Most fields have been improved. This is near Van / Fan.
Lichen on a tree.

Naked Ladies in Everleigh Ashes

Dr John Moon (main words) and David Beeson (images and introduction). 1st September 2021

Photographing the Naked Ladies … now do not get too excited, this may not the article you thought it might be!

As you will all know, Naked Ladies is a common name of the Autumn Crocus, Meadow Saffron, scientific name: Colchicum autumnale. This is a toxic, UK native that flowers in September and resembles true crocuses. This is, however, in a different plant family. It is not the plant that gives us the kitchen saffron. Biologically extracts from the plant can be used to disrupt nuclear division in the laboratory, hence its toxicity.

The photographs were taken in Everleigh Ashes, Salisbury Plain. This species also occurs in Collingbourne Woods near Andover. The plant is not common, but commercial bulbs can be purchased in a variety of colours.

Group of flowers. The leaves are not present during the flowering season.
The plant was flowering along the grassy footpaths and under dense shade. This is the spot.
Very like a garden crocus, but with a very long corolla (perianth) tube.
Group of plants.
Meadow saffron bud. When it opens the sepals and petals are the same colour, but in two rings of 3. Monocotyledonous plants have floral parts in multiples of 3, not so the dicots.

Meadow Saffron has an interesting biology in that, at the time of flowering, the ovaries are underground and connected to the above ground stigma and style. The style is contained in a long, narrow perianth / corolla tube. The germinated pollen (on the stigma) has to grow 15 cm down to the ovaries. The flower is topped by the petals which also contain the stamens. Pollination, via various insects, occurs above ground and fertilization underground. In the spring the seed capsule comes up above ground on the end of a stalk along with large glossy green leaves. All parts of the plant are toxic to animals and historically this led to many colonies in damp meadows being deliberately destroyed. The corms of the plant are also the source of the drug colchicine which is used as a gout treatment.

Remember: Pollen germinates on the plant’s stigma to form a multicellular structure called a pollen tube. This grows down inside the style to reach the ovary, which will contain an egg. One nucleus from the pollen tube joins with the egg cell in fertilization. Another pollen tube nucleus joins with the non-egg nuclei and that eventually forms the endosperm (food store). THERE IS A FULL ARTICLE ON THIS IF YOU EXPLORE THE ARTICLES ALREADY PUBLISHED – PLANTS ARE CLEVER 2. Plant sex is far more interesting than most folks understand! Alternation of generations!!

Plants are clever 2 is our most read article … to my surprise!

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Yellowstone National Park, 1

David Beeson, written August 2021

All our images

It is seldom that the Beesons go to the same spot twice. That we went to Yellowstone twice in two years is unprecedented. It was just so magnificent, and I urge you to go! The geology, botany and wildlife just blew us away, also the Americans are great at providing comprehensive literature to push the visit to a higher level of understanding.

Close encounters are guaranteed
Young bulls

Firstly, a couple of warnings. 1. There are coach trips that ‘do’ Yellowstone in a couple of days with a single overnight – DO NOT do this! Yellowstone needs your own transport and a week to get even close to enjoying and understanding the place. 2. Accommodation is an issue. To stay inside the park you will need to book a year in advance. This we did, but also we took an AirB&B house in Gardner, just outside the north entrance and added Teton Village (more later) after. We also stayed at Cooke City by the northeast Yellowstone entrance before moving on to Cody in the fringe zone.

Be aware that the ‘season’ for Yellowstone is very short. It closes down at the end of September for most functions. So, check this out.

How to get there? We flew to Denver first time, visiting the Rocky Mountain National Park before moving towards Yellowstone. The second exploration was via Seattle, going to Olympic then Glacier National Parks before Yellowstone. If you can drive, do it yourself. Driving in the USA is easy and comparatively cheap. We went as a group of six each time and hired small minibuses.

While Yellowstone is known around the world, Grand Teton National Park (Wyoming) is less famous yet equally stunning. What’s more, the two are virtually attached with Teton to the south. Do both, please. In fact, we had better walks in Teton and wild beavers are easier to watch.

Next tip: Buy ‘Yellowstone Resources and Issues Handbook’ before you start planning your trip. The $20 you pay (plus postage) will be worth it. The near 300 pages are a goldmine of information. For added stimulation obtain the BBC trio of DVDs on Yellowstone, especially because the content covers the times when access to the park is difficult or impossible.

You will encounter fumaroles (steam vents), mudpots, geysers and hot springs. With a thin crust water can reach hotspots, mineralise and burst to the surface with explosive force.
Mammouth Hot Spings. Travertine terrace – formed when mineralised water rich in calcium carbonate evaporates.
Artists’ Paintpot area.

Next tip: if you are still deciding between The Grand Canyon (Colorado) and Wyoming do note we have been to both, and Yellowstone’s Grand Canyon alone gets our vote – yes, smaller, but for us more impressive.

Yellowstone River’s Grand Canyon – viewed from south. Ospreys nest here, and within camera distance.

The road system in Yellowstone is a figure of 8 with access from the north, south, northeast and west. The caldera of the ancient volcano contains the main geysers, with the ‘honeypot’ of Old Faithful near to the popular west entrance, yet there are better and quieter volcanic displays elsewhere including West Thumb on the fringe of Yellowstone Lake.

Elk at Mammouth.
You get close to the wildlife. We had a huge male buffalo wander past us when we were in the middle of nowhere, with no where to run! Lamar Valley offered great wolf views.

Next tip: We enjoyed the Lamar Valley especially. It was quieter than many areas and held buffalo and wolves, and we had close views.

Grand Teton is quite different in its structure and is accessible from Teton Village or Jackson (to the south). Teton’s mountains are not all around the park, but mainly to the west as a stunning skyline. The foothills provide great walking for all abilities and the river plain has open vistas and easy access to the river and its wildlife. It is quieter than its neighbour.

Okay, last tip: do not even think about going – just plan your trip and go. You’ll not regret it.

West Thumb
Beaver
Early morning and we had just watched a male black bear cross, then run up this slope, so disturbing the elk feeding at the forest fringe. We also had, in Teton, close encounters with moose, pika, chipmunks, brown water snakes and marmots.

I could go on and on with images!

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Wildlife Garden in Late August

David Beeson

It has been an indifferent summer in Hampshire. Yet we are hugely appreciative of having no fires or floods or plagues of locusts. I guess dampness is preferable to desertification. The cool rainfall enhanced grass growth by removing growth-limiting factors, so with some of the meadows now cut the compost bins are full to overflowing.

Cut and uncut meadow. Harewood Forest is beyond.
An end-of-season Silver-washed Fritillary

The cutting of meadows is an art rather than a science. Which do I cut and when? The Main Lawn and Spring Meadows are easy and have already been cut. The Summer Meadow is always a conundrum. The issue being the short-tailed voles, slow worms and butterflies. All will be adversely affected by cutting. My solution is to rotate which areas are cut when each year, leaving some uncut until spring to allow some butterfly larvae the opportunity to slowly snuggle down into the soil and thatch even over the winter.

Cutting will remove the late flowers, yet they are now few and adult butterflies low in number. Not so the grasshoppers and crickets; they have done well and still chirp.

If the meadow remained uncut shrubs would grow and the zone slowly would move towards scrub and woodland. WE want a flowery meadow with its associated wildlife, so annual cutting is vital.

General view of the pond
Iris remains are still dumped on the pond’s edge. It is organic material and will decay.
End of the pond. Logs are left to decay and provide hiding spots for amphibians. The metal sculpture is a remainder from when we sold them as a fair trade project .. we still have lots!

With time, ponds always fill to form marshland or bogs. Our pond is now over 30 years old and this year has had a big clean. Over a metre of yellow iris gunk has been cut out – akin to cutting peat! Some composted, the rest ultimately to rest in an adjacent hedgerow. Dragonflies are still mating and laying eggs – Common Hawker and Darters. Newtlets are in the weed and some remain as larvae over winter, but the froglets have spread far and wide.

John’s Common Darter

Pulling the iris rhizomes from the water disturbed a long leech – 10 cm or more. It has no willing humans to donate blood, nor fish, so must be feeding from the occasional frog that visits.

Young Wood Mouse and a Yellow-necked above, but no sign of the Dormouse family at the moment.

To my surprise the dormice have moved on. Possibly they migrate with the supply of natural foods (Hazel nuts are abundant now, but not near feeder.) and prefer them to donated peanuts in the feeder. The moles are making new runs through the lawn and dug borders … hopefully they will stop now the run system has been extended.

As the meadow loses it colour the late herbaceous plants and the fruiting shrubs give garden colour and food resources.

Hibiscus and white Phlox.
Japanese Anemone
Gerbera

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Watery Meadows and Late Summer Colour

David Beeson, late August 2021

With time to spare in Salisbury I took the opportunity to re-visit the water meadows there. (If this topic is of interest see the previous article.)

More details in the previous nwhwildlife.org article
Harnham is a Salisbury suburb. This is a view of the cathedral, River Avon and between the two will be the water meadows.
The meadows are currently being grazed. Warm water would run into the system at sheep height and overflow down to this output channel and eventually back to the river, but downstream of its origin.

The C17 innovation of water meadows changed agriculture in Southern England. Comparatively warm river water was flooded onto the meadows to warm the soil and produce a flush of grass. Excess was lead away through lower channels.

The new grass provided food for sheep when there would otherwise be none, and allowed far more animals to be kept on the same land. It was a technological breakthrough, but at considerable cost and effort. Whole meadows needed changing to dig the input and output channels. The river needed weirs, or similar, to divert the water into the input channels.

Few working meadows exist today. There is one near Winchester, on the River Itchen, and another just south of Salisbury – the Britford Meadows. There remains are, however, common along the wet margins of local rivers.

Clearly this meadow can not have been ploughed since it was made in the 1700s or early 1800s. Hence an interesting flora with many unusual grasses. Few were seen in August as they had been chomped by the sheep!

Humps and bumps!
Watercress, burr reed and watery channels.
Ferns and liverworts at the water’s edge.
Hemp agrimony in a larger channel
Purple loosestrife
Harnham Mill, now a small hotel with wonderful views across the meadows to the cathedral.
Harnham Mill’s building materials.

The meadows will be FLOATED in late February or early March 2022. Go to their website for updates.

Now, just for fun – late summer colour.

Late summer colour 1
Late summer colour 2
Late summer colour 3
Late summer colour 4
Evergreen colour
Celia, in the chair, is one of our subscribers. Annette and I met up with her and Michael at Wisley RHS gardens.

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The Chemistry of Wildlife

David Beeson, late August 2021

It could be argued that wildlife enthusiasts spend too much time looking and too little in thinking. I bet you disagree! Sure, I do. The sights and sounds of the natural world is alluring and gives me a buzz. I am never more content than exploring for the unknown or simply enjoying magnificent redwoods, oaks or a green scene. Yet, there is more to be had. Why is that plant there, but not living two kilometres away? How can a mole live underground, while a similar sized rodent needs the open atmosphere? That is ecology and ecology depends on the chemistry of the environment and the organism.

Oxygen ecology

Moles, bloodworms (Chironomid larvae, non-biting midges) and vicuna have the same problem. They dwell in oxygen-deficient places. Moles underground, the bloodworm in the mud of aquatic places and the vicuna high in the mountains. Oxygen is the vital component in aerobic respiration – the release of energy from organic materials that drives the organism’s metabolism. (Anaerobic energy release is less efficient and leaves potentially toxic end products such as ethanol or lactic acid.)

Atmospheric oxygen decreases with height and so the gradient from the air to the vicuna’s blood capillaries in its lungs is lower – and diffusion could potentially not supply enough for its needs. Blood’s oxygen-carrying pigments can combine with diffused oxygen and carry it away from the lungs, so maintaining a good diffusion gradient. That oxygen is then dumped (released) where the local oxygen concentration is low. There is a graph that explains this – the oxygen-dissociation curve. This varies with different oxygen-carrying blood pigments. Haemoglobin (Heme for you Americans) is less willing to pick up oxygen than myoglobin, for example.

Here I need to divert to chickens. How would you know if a butcher sold you leg or breast chicken meat? Colour. That’s because chicken legs work aerobically and to run away from a foxy predator they have an oxygen storing pigment, myoglobin, fixed in their muscles. Explosive flight, when the fox is just too close, is anaerobic and so breast (flight) muscle has no fixed myoglobin and is white. (Now you know why some supermarkets shine red light onto their beef displays – because beef also has myoglobin and the public seemingly believes the more the better.) Have you noticed how deeply coloured heart muscle is? Not sure about you, but the more oxygen reserves in my heart the better.

Myoglobin picks up oxygen better than haemoglobin, yet only releases it when body oxygen levels are low. Ideal for the vicuna and the mole.

A baby needs to change its blood haemoglobin type soon after birth as the oxygen conditions from the womb to air have changed.

Bloodworms can be very different organisms because this is a loose non-scientific name. Midge larvae and small aquatic (earth) worms have the same common names. Both habit oxygen-deficient, muddy environments and need haemoglobin-like pigments in their blood, while open-water relatives do not. Mud is both dense and absorbing of oxygen as organic material decays, but open water draws oxygen from its surface, so is richer. Open water livers do not need to waste resources in having the extra oxygen carriers. Different chemical conditions, different physiological answers.

There are many oxygen-carrying or holding pigments, even in plants such as legumes – that need it to aid nitrogen fixation.

Oxyhemoglobin dissociation curve. Click for higher resolution image.
Y axis gives how full the blood is with oxygen. X (the one across the page) axis is the pressure of oxygen (PO2) in any given spot. Alveoli = lungs. Here the graph tells us the blood becomes fully filled / saturated with oxygen. Oxygen moves from air spaces into the blood along a gradient. A working muscle will have used up much or all its oxygen, so PO2 will be low. The graph tells us that blood O2 saturation is then low – the rest has been released from the blood into the tissues. Blood picks up O2 in the lung alveoli and dumps it in tissues low in O2. The more a tissue needs, the more is released. Bloody clever I say!

Acidity ecology.

On one occasion I set my students to assess the numbers of earthworms in two different environments – a lawn and later an acid heathland. The technique was learned on the lawn first and the latter was on a field trip. They marked out a area with a quadrat and poured a mildly irritating chemical onto the soil. Worms move to the surface under such conditions and can be captured washed and counted. (You can do the same with a solution of mustard in water.) On the heathland they found no worms. Worms cannot cope with acidic soils, which partly explains why the humus does not become incorporated into the subsoil.

pH, the scientific measure of acidity, varies. pH 3.5 (acidic) or less is known and at the other extreme pH 9 (Alkaline). Most plants live in the pH 5.5 – 7.0 range.

Soil is composed of water, air, humus (decaying organic materials), rock particles and living organisms. The rock particles can decay and release their chemical components or surface chemicals can be released by chemical action or water flow. These chemicals may be needed for the plants’ metabolism, especially nitrates (or similar), phosphates and potassium (N, P, K) but also numerous other micro-nutrients (iron, manganese, cobalt etc). As the soil pH changes so these chemicals are held or released in various proportions, and there may be too many or too few for any specific plant. For example, calcicoles need to grow in calcium-rich soils, calcifuges where calcium is lacking. Calcicoles are found on chalky or limestone areas, calcifuges are not there but on acid heathlands where the calcium is leached out by the acidity.

A manganese-loving plant must grow in acidic soils. Plants on acid heathlands will struggle to obtain soil nitrogen … hence carnivorous plants. Chalkland plants may lack iron as it is less available.

In Wareham Forest the soils are acidic, yet the roadway through it was made from calcium-rich marine gravels and the flora is strikingly different.

As global carbon dioxide increases it enhances sea acidity and this can adversely affect the shell composition of molluscs and corals… it dissolves away. Atmospheric acidity impacts on lichens and their tolerance determines where they survive. Xanthoria, the yellow lichen often spotted on roofs, is quite acid-tolerant and is encouraged by bird excrement, so occurs frequently in urban places.

Life in the gut and other exciting places.

Of course, living in or from another organism poses more chemical issues. We will avoid Covid-19 and the chemical mechanisms of immunity or disease or death, but the alimentary canal is filled with acids (human stomach) and digestive enzymes designed to kill and break down organic matter. Our gut flora will need either a wonderous body coating or chemicals to neutralise their opposition. I well recall my first dogfish dissection, for its body cavity and gut was filled with parasitic worms. What a difficult spot to call home.

Okay, now where else do you not fancy living? As a bacterium on human teeth? A dung or sewerage works specialist? You’ve got it … the point I am making is that chemistry is always needed if the organism is to survive, and we know little or nothing about it. Now there are some great research projects for new graduate biologists or chemists.

So, give chemistry a thought. All organisms only work because of their chemistry. Biochemistry is the chemistry of life.

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