The Running Total

So far, the grand total of identified species on the property stands at 1158.

Tuesday, 17 November 2020

Cabbage-palm

New Zealand Cabbage Palm (Cordyline australis)
Lately, birds have been swarming over our two New Zealand Cabbage-palms (Cordyline australis), stripping them of their multitudinous berries. The picture on the right shows of those trees this past April, with last year's flower spikes still hanging, dead and stripped of berries. You can clearly see how they got their common name; they do look a bit palm-like. However, they're not related to palms, or to cabbages. They're actually members of the asparagus family. The genus Cordyline is widespread in the southern hemisphere, but the species itself is native only to New Zealand. It's a popular introduction in the UK, often planted in cities and coastal areas, according to the Royal Horticultural Society's website. They can grow to about 20m (65') in height, though I don't think those in the UK get anywhere near that big. Ours are 4.5m (15') and 6m (20'), so still have some potential growing to do.

We hadn't anticipated their wildlife value when we first moved in. Mike thought that they — like much of the rest of the garden — had been planted for their ornamental appeal alone. But the flowers attract hordes of insects in the spring, and the berries are clearly favourites with our local birds and passing migrants. Check out the pictures below of some of the species we've spotted enjoying them. Sorry that some of the pictures are so dark; our weather here has been decidedly gloomy this autumn!

Flowering spike, in late May

A pair of migrant Blackcaps (Sylvia atricapilla)
One of our local European Robins (Erithacus rubecula)
A typically gymnastic Eurasian Blue Tit (Cyanistes caeruleus)

Saturday, 14 November 2020

Spots

Violet Bramble Rust (Phragmidium violaceum)
Now that many of the leaves have fallen from bushes, trees and vines around the garden, the ones that are left are more obvious — particularly when they're sporting some striking colours. And the eye-catching purplish spots that decorate some of the leaves on our bramble bushes are certainly showing well now. These are signs of Violet Bramble Rust (Phragmidium violaceum), a fairly common and widespread fungus in the UK. It attacks the leaves, sapping the plant of some of its vigour, but generally without actually killing it. That said, the fungus has been "weaponised" as a biological agent to control introduced European blackberry plants in places where they've become invasive. (Unfortunately, in some of those areas, the fungus has also attacked native blackberry relatives.) In the UK, it's most readily seen from late summer through autumn. If it manages to knock back some of the ubiquitous bramble seedlings in our garden, that wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing!

Thursday, 12 November 2020

Mozzie

Banded Mosquito (Culiseta annulata)
Somehow, I never expect mosquitoes at this time of year. And yet, here's one I found yesterday, resting on a leaf near our little "rubbish bin lid" pond at the foot of the garden. It's a Banded Mosquito (Culiseta annulata), so named for its very stripey legs and abdomen. Those spotted wings are also distinctive. And it's huge, for a mosquito, measuring about a centimetre (i.e. nealy half an inch) from face to tip of wings. This makes it Britain's largest mosquito. The long proboscis (sticking straight out the front) and slender palps (the two angled things sticking out next to the proboscis) identify it as a female. A male's palps would be extravagently feathery. This one is missing half of her legs; she should have six, like all insects. Banded Mosquitoes are mainly nocturnal, resting during the day. They overwinter as adults, hibernating somewhere protected. As with all mosquitoes, only the female sucks blood. She'll feed on a variety of hosts, including (unfortunately) humans. Males feed on nectar, pollinating flowers in the process. 

According to our Collins Guide to the Insects of Britain and Western Europe, Banded Mosquitoes occur in many habitats, though always close to water. Females lay their eggs in a wide variety of watery sites; these can range from fresh to brackish, and can be clean or polluted, shaded or sunlit. Larvae and adults are all present year-round. The government's Public Health website says they're common and widespread throughout the UK, though ours is only the fifth record for Norfolk in the national database.

Thursday, 5 November 2020

Starry

Springy Turf-moss (Rhytidiadelphus squarrosus)
Now that winter is well and truly on its way, things are slowing down considerably in the garden. But some things are now coming into their own — including the mosses, which are really enjoying our recent rains. One of the garden's most common species is Springy Turf-moss (Rhytidiadelphus squarrosus), which has spread throughout most of the lawn, particularly where the grass is short. The moss's long stems (sometimes as long as 15-20 cm; 4-6 inches), yellow-green colour and sharply splayed leaves are distinctive. From above, it has quite a "star-like" appearance. It has red stems too, but these are often almost completely hidden by the broad leaves (broad for a moss, anyway). It thrives in unimproved and semi-improved grasslands, and is ubiquitous across the UK. It's widespread in Eurasia and North America (where it's known as Square Goose Neck Moss) too, and has been accidentally introduced into parts of the southern hemisphere. Speaking from experience, I can tell you that it makes a wonderfully soft cushion for those of us who spend time sprawled out flat on the lawn!

Tuesday, 20 October 2020

Greenfinch

Male European Greenfinch (Chloris chloris)

On a typical day, our garden is full of birds. During the spring and summer, we hear them singing before it's even light enough to see. They swarm over our bird feeders in the winter, rummage through the flowerbeds in search of food, and build their nests in the shrubs and hedges. This year, some of the main players in the nesting department were the European Greenfinches (Chloris chloris). We hosted at least two (and possibly three) pairs, one of which raised at least two (and possibly three) broods right outside our office windows. That's good to see, because UK greenfinches have faced some major declines over the past few decades, with a drop in numbers of 64% since 1997. Part of the problem is a parasite called Trichomonas gallinae, which arrived on the island in 2006 and has caused havoc ever since. Trichomonas causes infected birds to be unable to swallow, leading to their deaths. It can be transmitted between hosts through contaminated food and water. Fortunately, we've seen no signs to date of that problem here.

Our greenfinches seem fat and healthy. These stocky birds are, as their name suggests, primarily olive-greenish — though with slashes of yellow in wing and tail. Their bills are stout and pink, and their tails have a noticeable fork at the tip. In the spring, males do showy display flights over the garden, zigzagging their way around big circles, singing at the top of their lungs. During the breeding season, we regularly see pairs together, nibbling dandelion seeds on the lawn or splashing in the birdbaths. Now that their young have fledged, we're seeing greenfinches in bigger flocks, often mingling with Common Chaffinches. Hopefully, our local birds will continue to buck the declining trend of the overall population. 

Saturday, 10 October 2020

Catkin nibbler

Birch Catkin Bug (Kleidocerys resedae)
While turfing non-moths out of the moth trap on a recent morning, I found this intriguing little insect marching around on the egg boxes. It's tiny: to give you an idea just how small, those pale, vaguely circular things near it are grains of sand. After taking its picture, I turned to the excellent website britishbugs.org.uk to identify it as a Birch Catkin Bug (Kleidocerys resedae). Its very similar to a closely related species that specialises on heathers, but given that Kleidocerys ericae is scarce in Britain, and that we don't live near any heathland, I'm betting my ID is correct. As you might guess from its name, it feeds primarily on birch catkins, which means it was probably attracted to the Silver Birch (Betula pendula) at the bottom of the garden. It's a widespread species, found across England, Wales and southern Ireland (as well as throughout Europe, northern Asia and North America). There are several generations per year; adults overwinter, emerging in the spring to breed, and larvae are found from March through September. Apparently, males "sing" mating songs, using a comb-like structure a vein of their hindwings. We'll have to listen for them next spring.

Thursday, 8 October 2020

Missus longlegs

Female Dicranopalpus caudatus
While clearing away some of the branches and fallen Cordyline leaves Mike had piled in one corner of the garden last week, I found this long-legged girl scrabbling around in the compost bin I was filling. I carefully extended my gardening glove (still being a bit of an arachnophobe, despite my best efforts) and she clambered aboard, allowing me to transfer her to safer surroundings. She was clearly different than the harvestman species I'd identified earlier in the autumn, so once I was back inside, I set about figuring out what she was. And it was somewhat more complicated than I'd expected! It turns out that she belongs to a somewhat cryptic taxon that experts have only recently determined is a distinct species. (And indeed, not all of the experts agree.) Females are easier to tell apart than males, thanks to their colouring and the fairly distinctive swelling they have on their back; that of caudatus is considerably more pronounced than that of the similar Dicranopalpus ramosus. Like the Leiobunum rotundum harvestman that I found back in August, this one is small-bodied and very long-legged. Her two eyes are up on a little forward-facing turret called an operculum. And her furry pedipalps are shaped like a tuning fork (you may need to click on the picture to make them big enough to see). Adults are out from late summer into the winter, so we may be seeing her again, out and about. The presence of this species in Great Britain is a bit of a mystery. It has been found in scattered locations across the island since the mid 1950s, but its origin is uncertain. It may have been accidentally introduced; alternately, it may be native. There is some thought that the relatively newly-arrived Dicranopalpus ramosus may have overrun and swamped its smaller cousin in much of southern England. Ours is the first record of this species in all of East Anglia in the national database!
A shot of the distinctive bulge on her back


Tuesday, 6 October 2020

Tiny armadillo

Common Pill Woodlouse (Armadillidium vulgare)
Every now and again, we spot a woodlouse scurrying along the baseboards in our bathroom; I'm not quite sure how they get in. I suppose that since the room is on the ground floor, they're coming through the vents or climbing up through the windows when they're open in the summer. (With few mosquitoes, we don't worry about window screening here.) However they get in, we turf them out when we find them. But this time, I used my handy new guide from the Field Studies Council to try to identify it first — and managed to do so! This little chappie is a Common Pill Woodlouse (Armadillidium vulgare), identified as such by its long, pointed antennae, its rounded back end (with no "protrusions"), and its shiny, uniformly grey colour. Its scientific name is a nod to its ability to curl itself into an armour-plated ball when threatened, just like an armadillo would. Despite the fact that it's largely limited to Wales and southern and eastern England and Ireland, (and only coastally north of there), it's considered one of Britain's "big five" woodlice. It's found in a wide range of habitats, both natural and human-created, and is very common where it occurs. Like most woodlice, it's primarily a vegetarian, feasting mostly on decomposing plant material. It can live up to four years, with females producing somewhere between two and four broods during that time. Believe it or not, woodlice were formerly used as recipe ingredients — woodlouse sauce, anyone? — and swallowed whole to treat various stomach ailments. Thank goodness for modern medicine!


Sunday, 4 October 2020

Red ants

Common Red Ant (Myrmica rubra)
Our pile of little crab apples from the 'John Downie' is attracting an ever-changing cast of tiny characters, all nibbling on the goodness oozing out of the slowly decaying fruits. Among the visitors the other day were a handful of Common Red Ants (Myrmica rubra), the only ants we've identified in the garden so far. Part of that is because they're the only ants that have stood still long enough to get their pictures taken! As their name suggests, these ants are primarily red, though sometimes slightly darker on the head. Males (which exist only to mate) are a bit darker than females. They're among Britain's commonest ant species, widespread across the islands. Elsewhere, they're found throughout Europe and into northern Asia, and have been accidentally introduced to North Africa and eastern North America. These are "rancher ants"; they find and guard aphids, protecting them in return for the honeydew the aphids excrete. They also drink nectar and eat pollen, and feed on small invertebrates. Unlike some ants, these don't make "mounds". Instead, they locate their colonies in damp places: under stones, walls or tree stumps, along tree roots, in decaying logs, etc. These colonies can be sizeable, often with multiple queens and multiple nests. Most inhabitants are female; males emerge only from mid-August to mid-September for nuptial flights with new queens. We've unintentionally disturbed a colony or two a few times while gardening, fortunately not with any bad results. That's good; in North America, they're known as "European Fire Ant" because of their painful sting.

Thursday, 1 October 2020

Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes...

A sad job
Sadly, many of our plans for the garden changed in one fell swoop last Friday. A freak storm centred over the North Sea brought nearly 24 hours of 70+ mph winds and another day of 50+ mph winds. Those gales brought down two of the bigger trees on the property, and badly damaged several others. We're hoping that the damaged ones survive, but we have another big storm brewing for this coming weekend, and that might be enough to bring them down as well. It's been a bit soul-destroying, to be honest. We've gone from having a nice mix of sun and shade, with some sizeable mature trees to having a very open garden with almost no shade at all. Yes, we'll plant some new trees next year, but we're not likely to live long enough to see them match the size of those that fell.


Mike's put in some hard graft over the past few days. We'll supply several friends with many yards of logs for their fireplaces and wood stoves, and we'll burn some of the branches in our fire pit. And some will undoubtedly make nice homes for overwintering hedgehogs.


Our 'John Downie' crab apple is looking pretty sad at the moment. The trunk has gone from being straight and true to leaning decidedly to the south-east, with previously unseen roots now visible near the base. Blasted, dead leaves hang from its branches — where they haven't been stripped off completely — and the entire crop of apples has been sprayed across the lawn. The Eurasian Blackbirds and Song Thrushes spent today bouncing around in the grass gobbling up what they could find.


The winds blasted one side of the cherry, stripping the leaves (and some of the branches), and putting the whole canopy "on the huh", as they say here in Norfolk to indicate something off-kilter. Fortunately, the buds look like they've survived, so hopefully it will still give us a great flower show next spring.


Some of the other plants suffered too. Our three Echium plants are looking decidedly worse for wear. Can you tell which direction the wind came from?


Regular change is a constant in gardening, and we'll certainly see some changes over the next months and years as a result of this storm. At least it will be easier to figure out where to put the new pond, now that we no longer have to worry about it filling up with fallen leaves.