Thursday, 24 December 2015

Finding Footpaths

Wet and mild has been the story of the winter so far, but yesterday was cooler, bright and sunny. We went on a 9km circular route north -west of the village following footpaths, though several were obscured or did not exist in a few places - ploughed fields, overgrown hedges.    Some of this looks deliberate as the countryside becomes urbanised, made private and tidied up.  The entrance to a grand residence, once a farm, had been manicured, even had little signs saying 'keep off the grass'.

The highlights were two separate sightings of hares.   They are seriously fast; the first raced off away from us disappearing at the top of a wheat field, within seconds - almost too quick to get binoculars on it.   The second emerged from a coppice, did a semi-circle around us before disappearing into a dip.  Brilliant to watch.

The mild weather  meant that a few common arable weeds were still flowering such as dove's-foot cranesbill, field madder, field pansy,  scentless mayweed, and red dead-nettle.    I might go back on New Years day when I plan to participate in the New Year  plant hunt, (, the aim being as the name suggests to record plants in in flower at New year.    When we lived on Skye the total was zero, always zero.   Hook Norton is a little different.

Field Pansy
Dove's-foot Cranesbill
Red Dead-nettle
We also came across a fungus in amongst grass near the brewery.  An inkcap, (the gills deliquesced, leaving a black mush on a glass slide) it is probably from the Parasola group, but getting to species has proved a challenge.

Ink Cap

Spores - Parasola sp. ?

Monday, 14 December 2015

Study Time

With wet and dreary weather day by day, I thought it time to prepare for the Spring and Summer.  I was really lucky over the weekend to get a place on an identification course for the families of Diptera - flies.   They are seriously difficult and have few admirers as a result.

It was organised by the Dipterists Forum ( and the Oxford Natural History Museum,( and presented by Dr John and Barbara Ismay, two experts who run a consultancy but who are also world-renowned specialists in the Chloropidae family of flies (grass flies).  Remarkably the course was free; John and Barbara got nothing for the 2 days and obviously substantial preparation time, because they are passionate about flies and what others to better appreciate an often neglected group of animals.

There were 12 participants on the course, young and old with quite a mix of backgrounds.   My interest is in flower pollination, particularly orchids.

There are 7,200 species of fly in the UK, compared to perhaps 26 bumblebees, around 60 butterflies, and 500 birds.  Flies are one of the insect orders, alongside Lepidotera (buttefrflies and moths) and so on.  The  species are grouped into over 100 families.   The course concentrated on identifying to family - not easy and a microscope essential.  Habitually I have taken pictures of flies and hope to identify them later from the photo.  It will not work unless there are close ups of the head, (front and side) the side of the insect and the wing.   Catching, killing and microscopic study is the only way.

Around 50 flies were prepared (beautifully) for study; using keys we identified around 18 representing the main groupings.


ZoĆ« Simmons, the curator, led a tour of the insect collections held by the Museum, the second largest in the UK, and containing some historical items including tsetse flies collected by Livingstone.   A large part of the collection dates back to 1849 when Rev. Frederick Hope donated his entomology collection to the museum   There is a significant collection of flies made by Verrall and his nephew Collin, over 100 years ago.


 An outstanding course and I cannot wait to find a few flies and fill the freezer with them.

Sunday, 22 November 2015

Foxholes in November

Had we still been on Skye then we would be expecting to see otters regularly and often at this time of year.   Late autumn in north Oxfordshire is a lot less exciting, but the weather is better.   So on a sunny but cold day yesterday we went to Foxholes,  a BBOWT reserve , around 10 miles from Hooky, looking for signs of otter on the stretch of the River Evenlode which runs past it, and to see what plants were still in flower.

We did find some spraint, where 15 years ago I found otter spraint to the disbelief of many because unlike now, otters were far from widespread on lowland rivers.  But yesterday's find  turned out not  to be otter spraint; it was mink.   They look similar but you have to smell the spraint; that of otter is rather sweet - and fishy.   This was just unpleasant.    We saw nothing in the river, only a moorhen, and no confirmatory footprints.  

Spraint site - view from river
Spraint site
Mink Spraint

On the riverbank were a few flowering plants, - all common - even this late in the year (Skye by contrast 'shuts down').   White Dead-nettle comes into flower in the early spring and must be a contestant for the plant with the longest flowering period.   Quite why it should be flowering now, when there are few if any pollinators (bees?) is a bit of a mystery.
White Clover
White Dead Nettle

In the wood itself we found a few fungi; Amethyst Deceiver and what I think is Ivory Woodwax.   There were a few grey squirrels, blue and great tits.   We put up a pheasant and heard in the distance a buzzard.   The juxtaposition reminded me of the irony that a Northumberland gamekeeper won a court action last week to allow him to shoot buzzards which take his young pheasants, the birds which he was rearing to shoot. Pheasants are everywhere, and a nuisance on the road.  I am for the buzzards.

Probably Ivory Woodwax
Probably Ivory Woodwax
Spores of Probably Ivory Woodwax  x630
Amethyst Deceiver
Amethyst Deceiver
Amethyst Deceiver Spores x630


Monday, 2 November 2015

Harvest Mouse Field Signs

Yesterday I went on a training day at Chimney Meadows, a BBOWT reserve a few miles south of Witney on the Thames.  The purpose was to look for signs of harvest mouse activity, one of the smallest mammals in Britain.  I have only ever seen one.  

Chimney Meadows
The training was led by Dr Amanda Lloyd who passionately works with BBOWT on dormice and other small mammals.  The idea of the training day was to look for harvest mouse nests.  I was a bit non-plussed by the idea of looking for nests in November - surely they nest in cereal crops, harvested months ago.  Every picture I have ever seen shows the mouse just below a wheat cob or similar.  Wrong.  They are just as happy, if not happier in tall scrubby field edges.

Harvest mice live for around 18 months; only a small proportion of the population overwinter.  There was no expectation of seeing animals, and indeed we saw none.

Last November, Dr Lloyd had found over 100 nests last year in a 30 x 200 metre field edge  that we were about to survey.    

This year with 15 surveyors we found only 13 nests, so quite a decline.   Such dramatic swings in numbers are not a cause for too much concern though.   They are regular but poorly understood.   

Nests are hard to find.   Mostly in amongst Tufted Hair grass (Deschampsia cespitosa) from a few centimetres up to 30 to 40 centimetres above ground, and amongst Phragmites and Himalayan balsam, the nests are up to 10 cm wide, made up of woven strands of grass leaves.   The star find was a nest in an almost impenetrable reed thicket.   I found none in three hours of searching.  Had this been a task on the Apprentice, I would have been fired.
Harvest Mouse Nest

Harvest Mouse Nest
Turning away from mice nests one of the party found owl pellets, which two of the party enthusiastically took for analysis.

Owl Pellets
My contributions were more prosaic, a few late flowering plants, hoverflies and other flies.  
Water Chickweed
Hoverfly (Syrphus vitripennis)

Scented Mayweed

Celery-leaved Buttercup

There were surprisingly few fungi; in amongst the grassland I did find a Common Fieldcap (Agrocybe pediades).
Common Fieldcap

Common Fieldcap Spores
It was a good day.   My challenge is now to find Harvest mice around Hooky where there seem to be no recent records.  

Saturday, 24 October 2015

A Dormouse Hunt

I joined an Oxfordshire Mammal Group survey for Dormice in Wychwood on Thursday morning.  The Group has set up 100 dormouse boxes in each of 14 locations throughout Oxfordshire.  Once every month to two months the boxes are surveyed to see if there are dormice in any of the boxes, as a way of confirming their presence. It is a project to see if there are dormice, uncommon throughout the country, in suitable habitat, hazel with brambles nearby.   Years ago I saw my one and only dormouse in a survey of  a BBOWT reserve, Homefield Wood near Marlow.

Dormouse Nestbox

Seven of us set out from Leafield, around 15 miles south of Hooky, to check the boxes in Wychwood.   All of them were empty, which was disappointing but not unexpected.   We also checked to see if there were any hazel nuts showing dormouse feeding signs - some chewed by wood mice , others broken by squirrels, but none showing the characteristic augured holes of dormice.   A blank.

I did find a few plants of Meadow Saffron (Colchicum autumnale) and some interesting fungi in the mixed wood, presenting the usual identification challenge.  Even with a clean spore print, a full description and a picture of spores under a microscope there is still room for a failed or incorrect identification.  

Meadow Saffron (Colchicum autumnale)

 Stump Puffball (Lycoperdum pyriforme)

 Trooping Funnel (Clitocybe geotropa)

 Blewit (Lepista sordida)

Probably Leaf Parachute ( Marasmius epiphyllus)

Close up: Probably Leaf Parachute ( Marasmius epiphyllus)

Mmmm.   Not sure.  Could be a Naucoria species. Spores 9x6 microns, oval.

 Scarlet Elfcap (Sarcosypha austriaca) - might be S. coccinea which is closely related