Week 9 Roundup

Week 9 Roundup : 20th May

A tentative and partial ‘release’ from lockdown seems to have changed things quite dramatically for some of us, yet barely a jot for others. ‘Stay at home’ was a straightforward message, easily understood and (to a large extent) universally applied. Now it’s all got a bit more complicated than that. The roads are busier, and the daily routine isn’t quite as straightforward as before. There are more options, and apparently we now have to ‘stay alert’…

Well, nothing this week has seemed quite the same as last week. There’s the Blackbird, for a start. His endless ‘variations on a theme’ have been replaced by something a little more mundane, less adventurous, less musical somehow. It’s as though his heart isn’t quite in it any more. And while his stock phrases still ring out across the rooftops—especially very early in the morning when some of us are starting to wish he wouldn’t bother—in the middle of the day he becomes silent and skulking. He seems distracted, as if his mind’s on other things; and of course it is, since for the last couple of days we’ve been seeing them flying about with beaks full of nestling food. Once the eggs have hatched, there’s clearly more to life than singing. And so this weary rooftop flautist now has to spend some of each day food-gathering for  hungry nestlings, or else delivering his urgent chookchook-chook alarm calls from the deep cover of the neighbours’ holly tree. Which probably means cats are about. I fear this may not end well.

We have a hefty lump of flint on our garden table, collected some years ago from the beach at Sidmouth. It’s about the size of a butternut squash, with rounded knobbles and dark recesses and holes running through it. For us, it serves as a paperweight, but also, I’ve just noticed, it’s become a favourite resting place (or maybe nesting site?) for tiny bees. These little bees I’d been dismissing as flies; and they really are extremely small—probably no more than about 4-5mm in length. After much bee-watching, I’ve worked out they’re Hairy Yellow-face Bees, Hylaeus hyalinatus. It seems that telling one Hylaeus from another is a challenge – there are about a dozen species in Britain, each one sporting its own unique black-and-yellow face pattern. Males and females have different markings, too. Only one, thank goodness, has a hairy face like ours. Plate 2 of Steven Falk’s field guide, showing the faces lined up in six ranks of four, looks like something ripped from a catalogue of Darth Vader masks, or maybe one of those charts at Slimbridge  showing how to distinguish one Bewick’s Swan from another by its bill pattern.I’ve been mesmerised by these minuscule bees on their cobble of flint; if I hadn’t been instructed to stay at home I’d probably never have noticed them. Just imagine, for sixty-four years I’ve been totally oblivious to the existence of the ‘Hairy Yellow-face’. There’s always something, isn’t there? (Thank goodness.)

When it comes to botany, of course, I’d like to think I’m better able to pick up on these sorts of things. Yet, with apologies to Graham, Fred and Helena, I still happily turn a blind eye to Hawkweeds and Eyebrights. I just don’t get them. But you can’t hope to do everything, can you? You have to pick your battles…

Some battles, though, are more easily won than others, and Ro this week reminded me of one that, like getting to grips with Hylaeus, could be particularly well suited to this time of ‘staying put’: the colour-pattern variants of Field Bindweed, Convolvulus arvensis. Mostly we ignore them, and yet Peter Sell took a particular delight in them, naming no less than ten easily recognised colour forms. We know we have many of these in the county, but which are common, and which less so? Could we perhaps, between us, work out a ‘league table’ for Somerset, from commonest to rarest? Do any of them have differing or particularly distinctive ecologies or habitat/soil requirements? To start the ball rolling, I’ll post on the website a home-made photographic chart depicting eight of the ten colour forms, plus a key to all ten so, if you’d like to, you can have a go at working out which ones you’ve got in your local area. I promise: they’re easier than dandelions…

Right, Week 9. Weather-wise it was like a back-to-front Week 8, so this time starting with a ground frost (1°C in Taunton on the 14th) and ending with a heatwave (25°C on the 20th). Another dry week too, and for the most part sunny. It pains me to say it, but still there’s been hardly a day of cricket lost to the weather, if only every day hadn’t been lost already—to the virus. Dragonflies and damselflies are really taking off now, if you’ll excuse the pun. I saw Broad-bodied Chaser, Libellula depressa, at Orchard Wood on the 14th, while Eve had depressa in the north of the county this week too. Several of you have reported seeing Beautiful Demoiselles, Calopteryx virgo, but not yet Banded, C. splendens. Of the damselflies, in Longrun Meadow Keith Gould—who I bumped into on Alma Street earlier this week—has so far recorded Large Red, Pyrrhosoma nymphula, Blue-tailed, Ischnura elegans, Common Blue, Enallagma cyathigerum, and Azure, Coenagrion puella.  Butterfly highlights of the week included two reports of Green Hairstreaks, one by a friend, Lynda Stewart, at Thurlbear on the 19th, the other by Georgina at Ubley Warren on the 20th. Georgina also had her first Small Pearl-bordered Fritillary on the 20th.

On the botanical front it’s been another busy week, with 16 of you sending in a total of 145 records covering 113 species. These included quite a few ‘late’ FFDs from higher altitudes of things recorded flowering in the ‘low country’ several weeks ago. It’s all starting to get terribly confusing, and hard to predict which species we need to be looking out for next. In all, we saw just 11 of the 20 species on our target list this week. The following summarises our Week 9 records: target species with their names emboldened, other notables slotted in as we go along, and the whole lot roughly arranged in alphabetical order by scientific name…

‘A’. Records have been tumbling in for Ground-elder, Aegopodium podagraria. Georgina says it was actually flowering in her garden last week, on the 12th, but others have begun seeing it this week, including Margaret at Strode on the 15th, Pat, also on the 15th, at Nettlecombe, and Helena with Dave Green on the 19th at Woolverton. The only other ‘A’ of note was Wild-oat, Avena fatua, in Upper Holway, Taunton, on the 18th.

‘B’. I’ve seen Meadow Brome, Bromus commutatus, in grassland near Orchard Wood on the 14th, also at Longrun on the 18th and Thurlbear on the 20th. Remarkably, also some very early Yellow-wort, Blackstonia perfoliata, in open stony ground beside the railway at Taunton station on the 15th. Watson would be spinning in his grave—his FFD for it about a century ago was 27th June!

‘C’. Linda very usefully picked up a couple of new sedges on a visit to Mount Fancy on the 16th, Common Yellow-sedge, Carex demissa, and Star Sedge, C. echinata. (Along with several other nice things, including Bog-bean, Menyanthes trifoliata, Lesser Spearwort, Ranunculus flammula, and Marsh Violet, Viola palustris. This is quite a late FFD for the violet, probably due to the fact that mostly none of us get to visit the right sort of habitat for it.) More sightings of Marsh Thistle, Cirsium palustre, this week included Linda at The Quants on the 13th, and me at Thurlbear on the 16th. Many of Pat’s FFDs at Nettlecombe are, unsurprisingly, lagging behind some other parts of the county, so all the remarkable that she recorded Spear Thistle, Cirsium vulgare, on the 15th, when Taunton’s plants—and I’ve looked at hundreds of them this week—are still stubbornly in tight bud. Two more records of Crested Dog’s-tail, Cynosurus cristatus, at Burnham-on-Sea on the 15th (Andrew), and at Lilstock on the 19th (Ro).

‘D’ for Dactylorchids…. Margaret has seen both Common Spotted-orchid, Dactylorhiza fuchsii, and Heath Spotted-orchid, D. maculata this week, the first at Winford (Redding Pits) on the 17th, the second on the 15th at Strode, where she also saw one of our target species, Southern Marsh-orchid, D. praetermissa. However, her first Southern Marsh-orchids were actually a day earlier, on the 14th, at Berrow, during her first botanical walk away from Winford since lockdown nine weeks ago. There have also been a couple more FFDs for Foxglove, Digitalis purpurea: at Ford Street on the 13th (Linda), and in Taunton on the 18th.

‘E’. Hoary Willowherb, Epilobium parviflorum, has at last been found flowering away from Fred’s ‘eastern enclave’, so in the part of Somerset called Somerset: Andrew saw it at Highbridge on the 19th. Helena visited Priddy Mineries on the 13th, with one of the highlights being Hare’s-tail Cottongrass, Eriophorum vaginatum. She says it’s normally an early-flowerer, but Watson would still have been mildly surprised, his average FFD being 30th May; although even ‘back in the day’ he did see it, very occasionally, flowering as early as April. More mundanely, I had flowering Californian Poppy, Eschscholzia californica, on waste ground in Canal Road, Taunton, on the 15th. (Nearby there was a lovely sprawling Sweet-pea, Lathyrus odoratus – a real rarity in the wild in Somerset, apparently.)

‘F’. Our target list included Meadowsweet, Filipendula ulmaria, but Hilary went one better, with flowering Dropwort, F. vulgaris, on Purn Hill on the 16th. No-one has yet seen Meadowsweet, although it was very close to flowering in Killams, Taunton, on the 19th.

‘G’. A sudden rush of records of Long-stalked Crane’s-bill, Geranium columbinum, this week: David H at Middle Hill Common on the 9th (so actually Week 8) was followed by Hilary on Bleadon Hill on the 14th, Chris at Langford Budville also on the 14th, me at Thurlbear on the 18th, and Gill up in the far north-east on the 19th. And a second record for Meadow Crane’s-bill, Geranium pratense, at Woolverton on the 19th (Helena).

‘H’. Margaret’s lockdown break-out to Berrow on the 14th also produced some flowering Sea Sandwort, Honckenya peploides, while there have been two records for Tutsan, Hypericum androsaemum, in Taunton on the 18th, and in Leigh Woods on the 19th (David H). Nettlecombe’s first Common Cat’s-ear, Hypochaeris radicata, was on the 17th, more than a month later than its first sighting in the Taunton area.

‘L’. A record from Fred of Grass-leaved Vetchling, Lathyrus nissolia, in Hants, but so far only a solitary Somerset record—that incredibly early one of Alastair’s in Minehead on 20th April. I have searched in several likely places, without success. But it must be flowering by now, mustn’t it? (And what about Yellow Vetchling, L, aphaca, too?) Meadow Vetchling, L. pratensis, has been remarkably slow off the mark, with Andrew’s record from Burnham-on-Sea on the 15th being the only one of the week. Privet, Ligustrum vulgare, was beginning to flower in Taunton on the 17th, while we also have a second record of Honeysuckle, Lonicera periclymenum, this time from Langford Budville area on the 14th. Marsh Bird’s-foot-trefoil, Lotus pedunculatus, seems to have flowered very much under the radar: David H saw it at Leigh Woods on the 19th, reporting that it had probably “been flowering for a while.”

‘M’. I saw a single plant of flowering Dwarf Mallow, Malva neglecta, growing around a roadside bollard in Upper Holway, Taunton, on the 18th. Ro was delighted to notch up Common Cow-wheat, Melampyrum pratense, on the 15th at Walford’s Gibbet where it was “… looking so pretty in dappled sunlight.” Linda also had Common Cow-wheat, at Thurlbear on the 18th. Following records in Week 8 of flowering Wall Lettuce, Mycelis muralis, in Hants and Bristol, we’ve finally had it beginning to flower in Somerset, in Gwynne Lane, Taunton, on the 18th.

‘N’. Yellow Water-lily, Nuphar lutea, was recorded by Val on the 11th (so Week 8) in the Glastonbury area, then on the 18th by Andrew on the Huntspill River. (Not one I usually record, but the White Water-lily, Nymphaea alba, was looking splendid on the pond at Roughmoor on the 17th.)

‘O’. Corky-fruited Water-dropwort, Oenanthe pimpinelloides, was just beginning to flower on the 18th in Trull.

‘P’. I had my first Hoary Plantain, Plantago media, at Thurlbear on the 20th, 11 days earlier than the 2008-17 decadal average FFD for it in the Taunton area, and more than 3 weeks earlier than Watson’s average FFD. David H’s record of Wood Meadow-grass, Poa nemoralis, in Leigh Woods on the 19th was similarly early. ‘P’ of the week, though, must surely go to Helena for her record of flowering Angular Soloman’s-seal, Polygonatum odoratum, in Cheddar Gorge on the 14th, while I had the first flower on Hoary Cinquefoil, Potentilla argentea, in Longrun Meadow on the 17th. Oh yes, and Andrew had Knotgrass, Polygonum aviculare, at Burnham-on-Sea on the 15th.

‘R’. Lots of sightings of Dog-rose, Rosa canina, this week, including Wellington, Glastonbury, Brent Knoll, Bleadon Hill and Leigh Woods. Only one more record, though, for Bramble, Rubus fruticosus agg. But, more interestingly, a ‘first’ for Raspberry, Rubus idaeus, at Nordrach on Mendip on the 15th (Georgina).

‘S’. It would be remarkable if Helena’s FFD for Mossy Saxifrage, Saxifraga hypnoides, on the 14th weren’t also its first flowering in the UK, given that Cheddar Gorge is an extreme southerly outpost for this ‘northern’ species. There have also been further sightings many other ‘S’ species, including Ragged Robin, Silene flos-cuculi, Bog Stitchwort, Stellaria alsine, Lesser Stitchwort, S. graminea, and Hedge Woundwort, Stachys sylvatica.  Plus, a cecidological ‘S’: in Leigh Woods on the 19th David H spotted galls on Wayfaring Tree, Viburnum lantana, caused by the gall-midge Sackenomyia reaumurii. I haven’t checked yet, but suspect this may be a ‘first’ for Somerset.

‘T’. Further records this week for Goat’s-beard, Tragopogon pratensis, and Salsify, T. porrifolius, as well as the hybrid between the two, T. x mirabilis. I have also been pleased to pick up flowering Hop Trefoil, Trifolium campestre, and Knotted Hedge-parsley, Torilis nodosa, on Taunton road verges, and Zigzag Clover, Trifolium medium, just beginning to flower on the 20th up at Orchard Wood. The most notable ‘T’, though, must surely be Steve’s ‘many plants’ of Woolly Clover, Trifolium tomentosum, at Huntworth, near Bridgwater Services, on the 17th – only the second record of this species in VC5 and Somerset.

‘V’. Helena, running more gently than usual, was able to spot Bithynian Vetch, Vicia bithynica, already flowering well on the 15th at Paulton. Other than that, the main ‘V’s this week have been Squirreltail Fescue, Vulpia bromoides, on a droughted grassy bank in Longrun Meadow on the 17th, and Rat’s-tail Fescue, V. myuros, which was seen on the 15th by Helena on her front path, and coincidentally by me on the same day on mine! And finally, the newsflash you’ve all been waiting for: on the 18th Helena ran 5 kms—that’s 3.15 miles—in under 35 minutes, and her first mile was 9 minutes 11 seconds, so two seconds faster than her previous best. I’ve never actually timed it, but suspect my own personal best over 5 kms is about an hour and a half. On a good day.

I’ll leave it to David H to wrap up this week’s report. On Sunday, 17th, he bravely “ventured into Wiltshire”, to visit Pewsey Downs…

“Couldn’t find a single orchid in flower … but did scratch out a few plants of Field Fleawort [Tephroseris integrifolia]. To be honest the best thing was the … Chalk Milkwort, Polygala calcarea, and Horseshoe Vetch, Hippocrepis comosa,stretching on and on, like a pattern infinitely repeated with slight variations. And … Marsh Fritillaries all over the shop, and [a single] Adonis Blue, like a scrap of the Aegean alighted on the Wessex ridge.”

Can we all go there next year, please?