Not all yellow flowers are dandelions.

If you look around for the next six months you will see a lot of flowers – but how many do you actually recognise, how many do you stop to look at in more detail.

Take Coltsfoot for example.  Until today I didn’t know what it was, I had heard the name, but wouldn’t recognise it at all.  It caught my eye because although it looked like a dandelion it was standing proud of the waste ground in groups.

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Apart from looking beautiful with such an interesting stem coltsfoot are recognisable in spring by their lack of leaves.  These appear after the flowers have died back and give the flower their name – apparently looking like a horse’s footprint, but not exactly convincing.  These leaves can grow up to 1.5m tall – that’s nearly as big as me!  However, the latin name Tussilago farfara is derived from its traditional medicinal as a cough medicine – tussis meaning cough and ago to act upon.  It has also been used for skin treatments, gout, rheumatism, colds and viral infections.  More recently though there are concerns about potential liver damage that could result from its use.  This is due to the pyrrolizidine alkaloids that are found in coltsfoot along with other members of the daisy family such as ragwort.  It is these chemicals that attract the caterpillar of the cinnabar moth to ragwort in such numbers as they use these poisons as a deterrent against predators.  However, the levels in coltsfoot are much lower than those in ragwort.

As it appears so early in the year (they flower as early as January and last through into March) it provides an important food source for many insects including honey bees as well as this little beetle.




There’s a lot to be said for staying local.

Whilst the idea of staying local has many opportunities of expression in the world of sustainability, I am talking about nature watching.  I have a fondness for the Brandon Marsh nature reserve near Coventry and sometimes go over there for a treat  – especially when it is my birthday.  I think the fondness stems from my first sighting of a hobby there which chased dragonflies across the front of the Carlton Hide.   So, as I had some days off work I decided to pop over there, telescope at the ready for a bit of birdwatching.

Whilst in the past I have seen a little egret there and last year got great views of cuckoos, if I am honest, every time I’m asked ‘how was it?’  I always haverot answer ‘it was very quiet’.  When I look at the sightings page I see other people have spotted bitterns, redpoll, water rails – I don’t expect to see them myself (although the bittern is something I would dearly love to see).  So, I wonder why I go.  I think it is partly for the hot chocolate and cake – an additional treat that I allow myself from the tea rooms there.

I think I might have been too early in the year, but I have to say it was quiet there on my recent visit.  I did see oystercatchers, but other than that, there were goldeneye, gadwall, shoveller ducks, nuthatches and the usual gulls, crows and a chiff chaff.  Not bad, but with the exception of the oystercatcher I can regularly see all of the others at Daventry Country Park.  (I’ve also seen hobbies chasing birds and a little egret there as well)  I did see some bees that I wouldn’t see in Daventry, but that was about all.  And, as for the hot chocolate and cake – the usual array of homemade cakes wasn’t on display and the price had gone up.

I think I’ll stick to birding in Daventry in future – and maybe take my camera along to look for insects instead next time I’m tempted to Brandon Marsh – they also are home to some fantastic demoiselles!

Clarke’s mining bee

I went to Brandon Marsh recently to see if I could see anything different bird-wise and so, armed with telescope, sound recording gear and small digital camera off I went.  Birding was pretty much a wipe out unfortunately (see additional post), but as I didn’t have my macro lens with me I was bound to see something I wanted to photograph.

I noticed my first small bees of the season (buff-tailed bumble bee and honey bee notwithstanding) – there were quite a few buzzing about and they seemed to be nesting in small holes in the ground – therefore they must be mining bees.  In fact, one nest site was on a path to a hide and I was worried I might stand on some.  I have seen a couple of mining bees before (ashy and tawny) and despite the fact that these were red in colour they were neither of the above.

IMG_1496It looked at first as though there might be two different types as there were some that were much paler in colour, but they did seem to be sharing the same nesting sites and holes, and I therefore concluded that they must be males to the red coloured females.  Sexual dimorphism (where there are visible differences between the males and females) seems to occur quite often in bees.


Unfortunately I got the ID wrong on these, but was corrected by a lovely iSpot member.   These are the male and female Clarke’s Mining Bee (Adrena Clarkella).  According to the BWARS site they are often the first solitary bee out in the spring – sometimes as early as February and continue flying until May.  They like pollen from Willow – hence the large number around Brandon Marsh I assume.  They built their nests on a sandy slope – presumably to catch the sun.  The bees seem fairly tame – so I think that next time my macro lens will come with me to try and get some better shots.  Now that I’ve seen it once I hope I’ll be able to recognise it the next time.

A bit of realism required?

I’ve seen a few posts recently talking about how to convince the general public change that climate change is real and it will have a devastating effect if we don’t do something about it now.  Not soon, not in the near future, but now (although it is too late to stop any changes at all, but the sooner we do something the better the outcome.)

One of these posts was quite pragmatic.  The basis was that as 97% of peer-reviewed papers published by climate scientists agree that it is happening and it is aggravated by man made emissions, then we should accept it as fact and, rather than talking about how to convince the general public about climate change the press should start talking about how we are going to limit the effects.  I applaud this sentiment, and look forward to this change in the general media, although I won’t hold my breath.

However, much of the press / social media is still asking the question ‘How do we convince people that they need to act now to stop the worst effects of climate change?’  They tend to liken the problem to the requirement to get people to stop smoking and use this as a ray of light showing that true enlightenment can be ours and mankind will be saved.  Sorry, I think that you are wrong and living in false hope if this is your example of a major shift in behaviour change – but I think it is a good example of why we (i.e. society at large) are not likely to do anything dramatic about carbon / resource use anytime soon.

Firstly, there are still an awful lot of people out there smoking and it is not because they don’t have the information to tell them that smoking is bad for them and is a major cause of many diseases that are likely to kill them.  It is because they don’t want to give up.   They will come up with all sorts of reasons why they shouldn’t give up.  These reasons include ‘I’m stressed / depressed, giving up will make it much worse’  (sorry, I think there is a lot of published information saying the opposite is true), ‘I’ve cut down a lot already’, ‘I’ve been smoking for so long it is too late to do anything now, I’ve probably already got any disease that I’m likely to get’  (also wrong).  I’ve even heard of pregnant ladies who say they’ve been told by their doctor that giving up would be worse for the baby than carrying on smoking through their pregnancy – really, I’m not a doctor, but I find that hard to believe.

Anyway, to cut a long rant short, the gist of it is that they don’t want to give up because they believe bad things happen to other people and it would involve them making a change to their lifestyle.  Now do you see the parallels with climate change?  Bad things (climate change) happen to other people (we won’t talk about how hot it was last summer, or how wet this winter was) and in order to do something people would have to change their habits and that’s hard.  (Actually it isn’t that hard.)   Besides, we all know that China is spitting out coal fired power stations faster than we can smoke a cigarette so what difference will turning off a light, or not taking a holiday somewhere that involves getting on a plane make?  We can come up with excuse after excuse should we bother to ever think about climate change (which most people never do) – as Machiavelli once said ‘ for every deceiver there is someone willing to be deceived’ – and sometimes they are both the same person.

As with seat belts in the 1980s, the last time a major change in smoking habits came about was when the law in the UK about smoking in public came into effect.  Therefore, the only way to do something about climate change is to enshrine it in law.  Whilst we are a long way off that, I agree that it is time to stop debating how many people are convinced about climate change and whether it goes up or down with changes in the economy, weather (insert current news event here) and lets just get on with making a difference anyway.


I’m not sure what to make of this…

Apparently Richard Branson has written on his blog that ‘businesses should stand up to climate change deniers’ according to an article in the Guardian.  He is citing the case of Apple whose CEO recently told climate change sceptics to ditch their shares in Apple.

So, whilst I am sure that Sir Richard’s remarks will actually have an influence on other CEOs (otherwise there would not be so many quotes on LinkedIn attributed to him) and it is fantastic that someone with his clout is being positive about the need to move on in the climate change arena and go from debating to doing, I can’t help feeling that there is something a bit wrong here.  After all, one of the messages that a lot of environmentalists try to get across is that flying is bad and for the founder of Virgin Atlantic, someone who made flying more accessible to the masses, to be talking about climate change seems a little bizarre.  It appears yet another example of do as I say and not as I do (as he lives on an island now I can only assume that he has not minimised the travelling that he does, particularly by plane).

So, whilst I applaud anyone trying to make the world a more sustainable place, I wonder why it is someone like Richard Branson, rather than governments making these statements.  Will the fact that Sir B. makes his money from areas that are inherently sustainable will lessen the impact of his message or will it just give more publicity to the climate change deniers instead of just pretending they don’t exist.




Is it going to be a good butterfly summer?

That apparently depends on the butterflies.  There has been some dialogue on Twitter that has revolved around an old belief that if the first butterfly seen in a year is yellow, then it will be a good summer, if it is white it will be a quiet summer and if it is brown or orange it will be a terrible summer.

I am not sure where this piece of wisdom has come from.  There are four butterflies that overwinter as adults; Brimstones, Commas, Small Tortoiseshells and Peacocks.  Therefore if you should see Brimstones first then the summer will be good, see one of the others and we are doomed to a watery summer, see a white butterfly and, I can only assume they mean an Orange Tip as they are the first white-coloured butterflies that are about, then it will be quiet.

Brimstone Butterfly 3I wondered if the reason for this was that Brimstones tend to overwinter outside and therefore if they are in a place that catches the sun then the air will warm up around them (they often shelter under dark coloured ivy) and they might be tempted outside if it is a particularly warm sunny day.  However, the Small Tort and Peacocks tend to overwinter in old buildings and sheds and are therefore less likely to experience sudden changes in temperatures and probably wouldn’t notice an occasional sunny day.  However, this doesn’t take into account the fact that Commas also spend the winter in the undergrowth so they should be out with the Brimstones.  Maybe Commas need the weather to be a bit warmer, or maybe they are much less noticeable than a bright yellow butterfly catching the sun as it flits past so they tend to be overlooked.  If the Orange Tips are out first then it must be April and hasn’t been particularly warm or cold so far and possibly a bit damp as they tend to spend the winter as pupae and then emerge to patrol damp verges and ditches to look for a mate.

Unfortunately I haven’t been keeping track of which butterfly I have been noticing first for the last few years – in Northamptonshire the Peacock has beaten the Brimstone for the last couple of years, but I wonder if that is because some have been overwintering in heated buildings and have come out in January.  For those that are interested my first butterfly this year was a Brimstone seen on 7th March, with Peacocks and Small Torts turning up a couple of days later along with a lot more Brimstones.   So, maybe it will be a Butterfly Summer after all (fingers crossed).


In my pond

Unfortunately my pond is in a north facing garden, so whilst everyone else is getting excited about frog spawn, I have to wait a few months until the fully grown frogs come to take advantage of my cool and shady pool.  However, all is not lost because I have discovered that there are other things lurking beneath just waiting for me to find them.

I have recently acquired a microscope and am trying to find my way round it.  Whilst other people could look at a slide and tell you all about the cell structure, or the type of creature that they have found I am currently satisfied to know the names of a few parts of a plant or to be able to focus the microscope without smashing the lens into the slide!    In the near future I do hope to learn how to prepare sections of plant so I can prepare my own slides – but one step at a time.

After looking through some slides that I borrowed and, quite frankly, being not much wiser than I was I decided to grab some pond water and see if there was anything for me to find.  I was quite excited to find some form of life wriggling around in the bit of water that I popped on the slide – although this was tempered by the fact that I worried I was slowly cooking the poor beastie.  However, it fared better than the other little chap I found which I think I squished when the cover slip went on, although he did continue to twitch disconcertingly for quite a while.

Putting the guilt aside that I felt from this exercise I was pleased to get some OK photos out of the two little chaps, whatever they were.


IMG_1471Quick update  – the chap or chaps at the bottom is a daphnia – I found it in an old biology book that I have.