Friday, 25 March 2016

Yellow Star-of Bethlehem (Gagea lutea)

The Gagea genus, which belongs to the Lily family is large, with at least 100 species spread mainly throughout Eurasia.  Any trip to Spanish mountains for example, is bound to throw up a few species but they are very difficult to tell apart.   We do not have that problem in the Britain because we only have three species and unless one is on Stanner rocks in Radnorshire (Gagea bohemica) or on Snowdon (Gagea serotina) then it must be Gagea lutea, Yellow Star-of-Bethlehem.   G Claridge Druce in his Flora of Oxfordshire states that the plant was recorded by Sir Joseph Banks in 1760, as Ornithogallum luteum.  The common name of Ornithogallum is 'Star of Bethlehem', and they are usually white, so clearly this is why it was known as the Yellow Star of Bethlehem, that is, a yellow member of the Ornithogallum genus.   (But then I have no idea why Ornithogallum species are called Star of Bethlehem!).

Its status is scarce and local; Oxfordshire has a few locations but yesterday on a short exploration along the River Dorn I found two colonies, one where Gagea lutea was the dominant plant in a 15 x 20 metre patch under mature hazel, on a damp calcareous slope.    It is notorious in producing few flowers, and in the patch I found no more than 5 to 10% of the plants had any flowers.   The same is true for Gagea Bohemica; lots of plants but very few flowers.

Bluebells were just beginning to flower.   I thought at first plants I found in a small copse were hybrids between the 'proper' bluebell and the Spanish invader (Hyacinthoides hispanica) because the flowers did not have the characteristic droop. Instead the top flowers were erect but on checking they were indeed Hyacinthoides non-scripta - leaves 14mm wide, corolla parallel sided and the three outer stamens (sadly some destructive testing to find out) attached to the corolla wall for most of their length (using Stace to key out the plant).

In all I made a list of around 40 plants among which was Moschatel (Adoxa moschatellina), for which there are only a modest number of records in the county.

In the last 15 years otters have spread to every river in Oxfordshire.   Back in the late 1990's I found spraint on the Evenlode, but the find was treated with considerable suspicion.   That has all changed; Though I have yet to see an animal on a lowland river but I did find on the Dorn fresh spraint, no more than a few hours old because it was gelatinous with the appearance of black tar.


The distribution maps (post 2010) records taken from the BSBI database for both Gagea lutea and Adoxa moschatellina are shown below.   The absences are perhaps more interesting than the locations.  For instance, why are neither found in Ireland (bar one record)?
Adoxa moschatellina post 2010 from BSBI database

Gagea lutea post 2010 from BSBI database

Thursday, 17 March 2016

Orchid Leaves

I am slowly building up a library of pictures of orchids when their first leaves appear, and then again when flowering is over and fruits appear.  They are though very hard to see on the ground in either condition and some prior knowledge of past flowering locations is fairly essential.   Today we went looking for a couple of species that I had not seen before at this time of year.

A fellow member of the Wychwood Flora Group (the successor to the Cotswolds Rare Plant Group) owns several hectares of pasture near to Leafield where she raises a few Dexter cattle, but with the primary aim of creating a worthwhile flora. It's a delightful spot especially on a sunny day.   This morning she showed me an area where she has around 150 Green-winged orchids (Anacamptis morio is I think the current preferred name, though it might have changed yet again before I have finished writing this piece), and sure enough after a bit of searching and passing by the superficially similar plants of Ribwort plantain, we found a few rosettes.  The orchids were on quite a steep east-facing bank and should be coming into flower at the end of April.    She also has Common Spotted-orchids (Dactylorhiza fuchsii), but despite a hands and knees search we found none.    Overhead we had a couple of buzzards, a red kite, kestrel, and we heard a green woodpecker and tawny owl in woodland nearby.

After lunch we went a few miles away to the BBOWT reserve at Westwell Gorse, where eventually we found around 20 plants of Early Purple Orchid (Orchis mascula).   Surprisingly these were in some rather dry areas rather than the damper woodland in the reserve.   These will probably be in flower in mid-April.  Non-botanical interest included a roe deer.

Finally to Chadlington where there are scattered colonies of the Grape Hyacinth, Muscari neglectum. There are several colonies near the village  but the main site on the village green was damaged some years back by housebuilding.  The plant is regarded as a native or long naturalised but is rare, its staus regarded as vulnerable on the red data list.  It was more widespread in Oxfordshire but most sites have been lost to ploughing;   intriguingly a few gardens in Hook Norton have the plant.    Besides Oxfordshire the only other sites for the plant are in East Anglia.

It is much more striking than the more common garden plant, (M. armeniacum) with its dark navy fertile flowers tipped with white.    Another distinguishing feature is that the leaves are narrower and curl inwards.

It would have been a perfect day were it not for a far from perfect lunch - refer to Tripadvisor!

Monday, 14 March 2016

Early Spring Insects

The last few days have really felt like spring.   Up until now though the only insects have been a few winter gnats and non-biting midges, but the warmer weather encouraged some larger flying insects.  

Worker honey bees were attracted to a flowering viburnum in the garden.  The wing pattern is distinctive - but they also have hairy eyes.   Of course honey bees are not a native species; they originated from South-east Asia.

Honey Bee - Hairy Compound Eye
Honey Bee Wing
Down at the Glyme Valley reserve I caught a Common Furrow Bee, Lassioglossum calceatum, which I identified using the brilliant keys in a recent book I bought, Field Guide to the Bees of Great Britain and Ireland, by Falk and Lewington, covering the 275 bees found in the UK.  Absolutely essential so I am well set to identify pollinators whether bee, fly or moth.  

At first glance, the Common Furrow Bee is not dissimilar to Hoverflies and it only becomes obvious that it is a bee on seeing the second pair of wings.   They nest underground; queen bees overwinter.

Common Furrow Bee
Common Furrow Bee Wing
Common Furrow Bee Face
Common Furrow Bee on Dandelion

Then on Sunday night I put the moth trap out in the garden for three hours and caught 6 moths, 5 species:

Clouded Drab

Small Quaker
Common Quaker
Hebrew Character

Finally, retaining the insect theme, on a road verge near our house there is a small patch of Comfrey -  but given the number of caterpillars of Scarlet Tiger Moth, there will not be much of it left to flower.

Sunday, 13 March 2016

Glyme Valley

The River Glyme rises just east of Chipping Norton, around 5 miles from Hook Norton, finding its way through Wootton and Woodstock, before joining the Evenlode.   Near the headwaters is a SSSI and a local wildlife trust, BBOWT, reserve known as Glyme Valley on a limestone slope above the river. I walked along the river to the reserve from Old Chalford Farm.  The river meanders gently along, fed by a few springs running off the surrounding limestone.    I found several otter spraints, though none fresh, containing fragments of crayfish.    I also saw a green woodpecker.

River Glyme
River Glyme
Too early for flowers in the reserve, I did find the leaves of what I think is a bee orchid, and I will go back in 6 weeks or so  to check my determination.

BBOWT Glyme Valley Reserve
Probabably a Bee Orchid (Ophrys apifera)
On the way back I went along a green lane, finding two badger settts (making five for the day - they really are common-place) and this rather neat fungus which is probably Yellow Brain Fungus (Tremella mesenterica).

Finally my path took me past the remains of a medieval village at Nether Chalford.   This is about as much as could be seen above ground, on the south side of the river.   There is another part on the north side.

Nether Chalford

A pleasant ramble in the sunshine, and mercifully no dog walkers, shouting hoarsely as their charges race around uncontrollably - a bane of the countryside.