Monday, November 26, 2012

Very Berry

A recent visit to Fowlmead Country Park provided wonderful autumnal colours and plenty of food for birds. The plantings of berry-bearing native shrubs look very good and well thought out.

Common hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) is steeped in folklore and superstition. It graces hedgerows in spring with its creamy-white mayflower and at the year's end the deep red berries glow in the autumnal sunshine. The fruits, are called haws, from the Anglo Saxon haga, meaning hedge or enclosed land. Its botanical name Crataegus is from the Greek kratos, meaning hard.

Common hawthorn was widely planted in 18th century enclosure hedges. Waxwings, redwings, fieldfares, thrushes, blackbirds all love it - so keep an eye out for colourful migrants.

Hawthorn is used widely in western herbal medicine. There's some evidence it's effective in some stages of congestive heart failure. Clearly not a condition to self-medicate!

Sea buckthorn (Hippophae rhamnoides) has startling orange berries thickly clustered on bare branches. The etymology of the botanical name is somewhat obscure; Hippophae is derived from hippos, the Greek for horse. There are two distinct possibilities for the meaning in the literature; shining horse (from the story that branches of sea-buckthorn were added to horse's fodder to give them shiny coats) or horse killer (from a name given by Theophrastus to a spiny shrub, which may or may not have been sea buckthorn). There's also a link to the legend of Pegasus; he allegedly favoured sea buckthorn above all other bushes!

Sea buckthorn berries are numerous and it's curious that they're not much used in the UK. Perhaps their preferred habitat in remote dune areas, not hedgerows, made them less accessible to people. Or maybe those thorns... Another name for the plant is sandthorn. I've never tasted the berries but they are described as 'tart'. I recall watching Ray Mears on Wild Food, stripping the berries with gusto using an ingenious homemade comb contraption (the thorns are a nuisance for sensitive hands) and juicing them. He didn't seem too impressed after all that effort and I've not been tempted to try them. However, in Europe it's sold as a fruit juice, so I'll look out for it next time I'm over in France.

Sea buckthorn tea (thé d'argousier) was actually on the breakfast table at a lovely B&B we stayed at near Crécy earlier this year, and it was delicious (as was the caramel spread!). It's made from the leaves and small twigs.

Wild privet (Ligustrum vulgare) is our only native privet and more often seen in chalky areas. The Elizabethans used it for hedging but it's been superseded by the Japanese import, L.ovalifolium. The springtime clusters of white flowers are honey fragranced and seem to be popular with bees. The tiny black berries are poisonous to humans. In fact the whole plant is not only toxic but can cause contact dermatitis. If ingested the berries are highly irritant. This doesn't seem to stop blackbirds gobbling them up wholesale.

Another good reason to grow privet is that it's the food plant (along with ash (hmm) and lilac) of the glorious privet hawkmoth (Sphinx ligustri).

Privet hawkmoth (Sphinx ligustri) Photo credit: Jean-Pierre Hamon
Wikimedia used under a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 3.0 licence.

Guelder rose (Viburnum opulus) is a native shrub. It's not a rose, and is more closely related to elder. The common name Guelder comes from the cultivated variety first grown in the province of Gelderland in Holland. Viburnum is from the Latin, to braid and opulus derived from Latin for maple (the leaves resemble maple)

In herbal medicine guelder rose is known as crampbark. The bark was (and still is) used for nervous complaints, cramps and seizures. However, this use lacks a robust evidence base. (Crampbark is also the name for the American black haw (Viburnum prunifolium), also used in herbal medicine).

In America Viburnum opulus (var. americana) berries are called high bush cranberries. This is a misnomer as the only similarity is the colour. I've never tried or been tempted to make a jelly from them, and the berries are toxic raw.

Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa ) is widely planted in hedgerows. Its white flowers are seen early in spring. Prunus spinosa means spiny plum and the plant is our native scrubby relative of the cultivated Prunus domestica. Its another bush with vicious thorns.

Blackthorn berries, sloes, are deep dark purple and look like wee plums. The dusty look is caused by pruinesence, a waxy coating that protects the fruit from water loss and wetting. Sloes are wicked sharp but make the richly coloured sloe gin (although I prefer sloe vodka), usually picked after bletting by the first frosts (one can simulate this by freezing fruits picked earlier). Sloe is from the Old English, slah, which sounds to me like the sound one might make when eating one of the highly astringent fruits. Ötzi, the 5,300 year old mummy found frozen in the Alps, had sloes stones in his stomach.

Spindle (Euonymus europaeus) is known as an inconsistent fruiter, but this year the bushes at Fowlmead were overburdened with coral-pink fruit. Spindle is named for the use of its wood for spindles and other pointy things; skewers, knitting needles, toothpicks and the like. Another name is prickwood. It's a small tree and thus very manageable and decorative in the garden.

Spindle is said to make very fine quality charcoal for artists. Blogger Days on the Claise writes that the French for a charcoal sketch is dessin au fusain. Fusain is also French for spindle, and a generic term for artist's charcoal (even though artist's charcoal is more commonly made from willow). .

The ripe pink fruits really pretty and are four-lobed.

They split open to reveal clashing bright orange seeds.

The fruits look toxic and are purgative if taken internally. The whole plant is toxic to humans but the fruits are enjoyed by birds. According to Gabrielle Hatfield (2004) the berries have been used topically for headlice. The fruits were also once baked and powdered, and used to treat cattle for mange.

Looking at the wild berry harvest locally, the sloe crop is poor, but spindle and hawthorn seem to be pretty abundant (until stripped by hungry hoards of feathered berry snatchers).

The best book on British berries (and my own favourite) is David Lang's The Complete Books of British Berries, 1987, Kenilworth Press. Well worth getting if you see one secondhand. He's not only a naturalist and photographer, but also a qualified veterinary surgeon and his scientific approach gives the book considerable gravitas.

Gabrielle Hatfield (2004) ABC-CLIO Encyclopedia of Folk Medicine: Old World and New World Traditions

BTO are currently running a Birds & Garden Berries Study. They've produced an excellent online guide (pdf) to British berries available here.

Friday, July 20, 2012

The Shining: Part Two

Having been blown away by the rear-end wiggle-walk antics of glow-worm larvae in May (see videos in my previous blog), we were jolly keen to return to Elham Park Wood to find some glowing adults.

So in late June, on a cool but dry evening, and after a thoroughly agreeable picnic tea amid fragrant orchid profusion at Park Gate Down, we retraced our steps in the woods. As evening fell and as our eyes grew accustomed to the lack of light, we saw wonderful things; little blips of light started appearing, like magic, in the grass next to the path. The glow-worms were glowing :-)))

I didn't want to use flash or a torch so here's the best close-up I could get.

This is a female glow-worm (OK you can only see her rear end) advertising for a mate. You'll recall that glow-worms spend about 2 years as carnivorous larvae, then in their final summer, they become adults for a few short weeks (during June/July). They don't feed as adults, they just mate, hopefully reproduce, then die. Adult glow-worms are sexually dimorphic with the females being flightless and rather similar in appearance to the larvae. The males fly and find their mates using phototaxis (movement in response to light) (Booth, Stewart & Osorio 2004). Here's a rather good photo of a male from Wikipedia.

Male glow-worm by Hectonichus, 2007, taken in Italy and used here under a 
Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

It's a magical experience lying on a cold, damp gravel path in the middle of a dark forest gazing at a little insect wiggling its bioluminescent bottom. I can't recommend it enough.

Time for a joke?
A glow-worm walks (make that 'wiggles') into a bar.
Bar-tender says 'What can I get you mate?'
'I'll have a light ale please.'

Enough of this light-hearted humour. Back to ecology. So, how does a glow-worm glow? Glow-worms are bioluminescent; able to produce and emit light via a internal biochemical reaction (literally it means living light). I was going to summarise the biochemical processes involved but Dr John Day does an excellent job of that here. It's all catalysed by the marvellously useful enzyme luciferase, which is named after Lucifer, the 'light bringer'.

Once the females have mated successfully their glow diminishes. Their job done, they die soon after laying eggs. Larvae do apparently emit a low glow, which we looked for in May but didn't see.

These ladies do not just light up their behinds and sit there. On no. These girls know how to move. They wiggle their rear-ends alluringly. You can just about make out some of their 'come and mate with me' grooves in my poor quality video.

As with so much wildlife on our crowded isle, glow-worms have decreased in numbers over the past decades. They are rarely found on 'improved' agricultural land, preferring less disturbed grassland. They are most 'common' in the south on chalk grassland (Gardiner, 2009). As glow-worms are unable to move to colonise new areas (the females are flightless) their numbers have declined as habitats become fragmented and, in some cases neglected (Gardiner, 2009).

Development and light pollution are ongoing threats to glow-worms. A recent study from the University of Southampton is concerning, finding that low levels of light pollution (lower than previously thought) can reduce the effectiveness of glow-worm reproductive signals. Males were unable to locate females in even dim artificial light, because the female's signal is drowned out (Bird & Parker, 2011). No wonder we've only found glow-worms on dark woodland rides......

Like Sir David (quoted this week in an article in the Indie) I'm generally rather pessimistic about the future for our wildlife and natural habitats. So many pressures on land from so many people. And a government uninterested in sustainability (see George Monbiot here for an acerbic take on Rio+20 and the evolution of 'sustainability' to 'sustainable development' to 'sustainable growth', an entirely different concept to the original). 

How many people have seen a glow-worm glow? Perhaps Sir Winston Churchill did. Here's a quote attributed to the great statesman; 'We are all worms, but I do believe I am a glow-worm' (see Bonham-Carter, 1965).

Further Information and References

Bird, S & Parker J (2011) Low levels of light pollution may block male glow-worm’s (Lampyris noctiluca L.) ability to locate females. Journal of Insect Conservation. Abstract only here.

Bonham-Carter, Violet (1965) As I knew him. London: Eyre & Spottiswoode and Collins

Booth, D Stewart, AJA & Osorio, D (2004) Colour vision in the glow-worm Lampyris noctiluca (L.) (Coleoptera: Lampyridae): evidence for a green-blue chromatic mechanism. Journal of Experimental Biology. Volume 207, pages 2373-78. Abstract here and editorial here.

Gardiner, T. (2009) Glowing, glowing, gone? British Naturalists’ Association, Corby. Full pdf here.

An early account of glow-worm natural history is by George Newport (1856) On the Natural History of the Glow-worm (Lampyris noctiluca). Journal of the Proceedings of the Linnean Society (Zoology). Volume 1, Issue 2, pages 49–71. Available online here. An even earlier account from a 1793 volume of The Gentleman's Magazine is here.

This looks like a super new book which I'd like to read when it's published in 2013; Dr. John C Day 'Fireflies & Glow-worms'.

BUT....if you want to know more about glow-worms go no further than Robin Scagell's excellent site. If you see a glow-worm you can send him your record via this website:

Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Shining: Part One

Despite the worst depredations of the British weather this summer* I've seen some wonderful wildlife so far in 2012. We had some gloriously sunny days earlier in the year and woodland walks are a delight on a crisp winter's day. One such delight was a visit (on February 25th) to a Woodland Trust managed site, Park Wood near Chilham.

Park Wood is remnant ancient woodland and part of the larger Forestry Commission managed King's Wood complex. [Here seems a good place to note our government's recent, most welcome announcement that they won't be selling off publicly owned woods after all. What a shame it took public outrage, petitions and independent advisers to apprise them of the obvious foolishness of their original plan. Sigh.]

You never know what you might find if you peek underneath a fallen log and beneath one I found a real treat; a hibernating glow-worm larva. [You can tell it's a larva and not an adult because it has pale tips at the end of each segment - and the time of year is a giveaway.]

This little beastie was less than an inch long and unsurprisingly very lethargic. A few quick pictures and we put it back in the dark, damp leaf-litter under the log.

Glow-worms Lampyris noctiluca are our only resident firefly (although they are neither worms nor flies; they are beetles). Lampyris is from the Greek meaning 'shining one'. Noctiluca is derived from Latin meaning moonshine or night light. Although best known for the bioluminescent activity of the adult females, they actually spend most of their lives as larvae - about 2 years. The adults don't feed and only live for 2 weeks or so using stored energy reserves - they mate and die. The larvae on the other hand are voracious nocturnal carnivores hunting slugs and snails, which they first inject with a paralysing digestive fluid before devouring their prey using their specialised mouthparts. They hibernate under logs or in leaf litter. [Information on glow-worm ecology is from the UK Glow-worm Survey website.]

We reported the find to the Woodland Trust and Robin Scagell at the UK Glow-worm Survey. It appeared to be the first reported record for this site. Happiness :-) An unexpected encounter indeed. We planned to go back in the summer.......

As it happened the weather* has been a bit off so the return to Park Wood is yet to happen.

However, in late May, having just visited Park Gate Down for an orchid fix, we stopped for a late evening stroll through the Forestry Commission managed Elham Park Wood (part of Lyminge Forest.)

In the gloaming and within about 20 yards of the barrier we nearly trod on some small wriggling things making their way across the gravel forestry track.....on closer inspection....

......Yay!!! More glow-worm larvae :-) And far from lethargic this time.

This is another larva because of those pale tips to the segments. Glow-worms exhibit sexual dimorphism; males and females are markedly different. Females actually resemble the larvae and are flightless. A (small) picture showing the difference between the adult female and a larva is here. Males have wings and look like this.

The larvae have a curious and distinctive locomotion, not unlike that of Geometrid caterpillars (inchworms); using their rear ends for traction.

They moved surprisingly fast.

We continued on our way with great care and counted 20 individuals, all larvae, wriggling across the track in a 30 minute walk. Absolutely superb insects.

We'd never seen anything like this before. A revisit to Elham Park was agreed to be a MUST.

* Footnote: I hesitate to blame the weather for the paucity of blogging activity here as I'm well aware of Oscar Wilde's admonition that "conversation [...and one could include blogging in that...] about the weather is the last refuge of the unimaginative". I cannot ascertain where or when Oscar said this but it's copied ad infinitum on the web. I'm not sure I agree with Oscar on this point. Conversation regarding the weather oils social interaction, easing us into conversation with strangers, and has united us Brits in a collective misery at the recent vicissitudes of the wayward jet-stream. It's a decidedly British trait and should be included in the citizenship tests set by the Home Office.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Benyon Blitzes Buzzards

I'm angry.

Less than week ago the RSPB announced that hen harriers are now on the brink of extinction in England due to ongoing persecution by shooting interests.

Hen Harrier. Photo courtesy of Steve Ray

Only one pair of hen harriers now nest in England. Utterly appalling.
What is the government doing? Absolutely nothing.

(Mark Avery has been following up on this lack of action in his series of blogs entitled Wuthering Moors. They start here and the latest is here.)

Can things get worse? Well, yes they can. Defra, the government department charged with all things related to our natural environment, who should be taking action to protect hen harriers (but aren't) recently announced that they are offering nearly £400,000 to potentially persecute yet another bird of prey, buzzards. Unbelievable but true. The tender is available for download here.

Buzzard. Photo courtesy of Steve Ray.

Magnificent, majestic, magical buzzards, protected birds of prey, are possibly going to have their nests destroyed. Why? The heinous crime with which buzzards are charged with is taking a few young pheasants. Eh? The logic of the whole thing escapes me on all levels.

Buzzard. Photo courtesy of Steve Ray.

1. Taxpayers' money should not be used to support private shooting interests.

2. The 'evidence' that buzzards are having an economic impact on pheasant shoots is flimsy and anecdotal at best. An unpublished study by ADAS apparently found that 1-2% of young birds might be taken by raptors. (These figures are taken from Raptor Politics)

3. Buzzards are native birds of prey. They belong to us, to these islands. Pheasants are introduced, numerous (millions) and bred to be driven and shot; for profit. Why not ban pheasant breeding and subsequent release into the wild to protect buzzards?

Pheasant. Photo from Wikipedia taken by user Lukasz Lukasik.

4. Buzzards are fantastic birds to see and to hear. I don't want the government to sanction killing them.

Not everyone is in agreement with my views. The Countryside Alliance make their own views clear here as do the BASC here. The claim that buzzards cause serious damage at pheasant release pens is unsubstantiated. It's a classic ploy. Create doubt and controversy to hide the real motive.

Another fantastic photo taken by Steve Ray (Greater Kent Birder)

We all value the wildlife we have. It inspires and enriches our lives, contributes to our wellbeing and delivers the ecosystem services we need to survive. We must make sure wildlife has effective protection and is managed. We do this through complying with our national and international obligations.

I didn't write that last paragraph, Defra did. Perhaps Richard Benyon the minister in charge of this department needs to read his own website.

The RSPB is stunned, and hopefully will take some action soon to capture the wave of anger and shock that many people are feeling. We must not weaken the protection given to our birds of prey. We should be strengthening it. Doing nothing to stop the persecution of our birds of prey is not an option.

I've posted my comments on various sites, I've emailed politicians, blogged and signed 2 e-petitions. Thank you to Steve for his marvellous photos.

Now I'm going to go and enjoy the countryside looking for butterflies.

Recent comment of note on this subject include...

There's an e-petition here. I can't find an RSPB petition yet......

Richard Benyon
is the minister at Defra. His email address is

George Monbiot at The Guardian comments here. He also wrote an informative piece about the minister Richard Benyon's environmental credential here.

Martin Harper, the RSPB Director of Conservation has written a punchy blog on the subject.

Dr Mark Avery is the former RSPB Director of Conservation. He's written blogs here and here.

(What these 2 men don't know about the protection of birds of prey in this country isn't worth knowing.)

BASC policy on raptors is here. It's an interesting read.

Stirling University (my own alma mater) have published a number of papers on game birds; a recent paper (Impacts of birds of prey on gamebirds in the UK: a review) is here. The authors conclude: 'On the whole, however, it appears that raptors account for a relatively small proportion of mortality among released birds and the impact on subsequent shooting bags is unknown'.

Steve Ray's photostream on Flickr is here.

The Wildlife Trusts have a FB page here.

Alan Tilmouth (DustyBins) comments here.

Raptor Persecution Scotland comments here.

Raptor Politics sums things up here.

Defra have put out a Myth Bust statement which somewhat misses the point of the fury surrounding their press release.

There's an e-petition calling for the introduction of offence of vicarious liability for raptor persecution in England here.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Helix cantiaci

Due to the recent inclement weather things have been a little slow in the botanical department. All is not lost however, as snails seem to be loving it. So there's time for a little more helical delight. We found this very pretty snail in Dover.

To digress a moment. Everyone knows that if you're in possession of Y chromosome and live in East Kent (east of the River Medway), you're a Man of Kent. If you live west of the Medway you're a Kentish Man. The Association of the Men of Kent and Kentish Men was established in 1913 to celebrate these idiosyncratic cultural distinctions. A possible derivation of this tradition is that the Medway was the border of the ancient kingdoms of Jutish East Kent and Saxon West Kent.

What has this to do with snails? Well, what applies to men, could also apply to gastropods. Snails have cultural identity too. As there are Kentish Men, there are also Kentish Snails. The snail above is a Kentish Snail Monacha cantiana.  I know Dover is actually in East strictly speaking these particular Kentish Snails should be called Snails of Kent.

The Kentish Snail was probably an accidental introduction to the UK by Roman farmers. Monacha is from the Greek monachos, meaning 'solitary' (as in monk) and cantiana refers to Kent. The old Kingdom of Kent was called Cantia regnum in Latin.

Kentish snails are not only attractive (well, this colour variation is) but also hairy snails. Juveniles are hairy but the hairs wear off over time. The hairs may assist young snailings in getting a better grip on slippery wet vegetation.

The snail was named (I believe) by the naturalist George Montagu (1751-1815). George wrote a roaringly good book called Testacea Britannica or Natural History of British Shells (1803). (It's accessible free on Google Books.)

Here's page 422 from Testacea Britannica describing Helix cantiana...

I assume the Dr Lister referred to above is the naturalist Martin Lister (1639-1714). He wrote a weighty tome on British Shells called Historiae Conchyliorum (1685). His wife, Anna produced the stunning engravings. Here's an example from Wikipedia.

I've digressed again......pardon. Back to George Montagu. Here he is. (Picture from Wikipedia.)

George was not only an expert on shells, but also a skilful ornithologist. He wrote an Ornithological Dictionary of British Birds (1802) (The 2nd Edition (1831) is freely available on Google e-books.)

Few individuals have the honour of having a species named after them. George is one of this select group. He was responsible for discovering that hen harrier (Circus cyaneus) and Montagu's harrier (Circus pygargus), are in fact 2 separate species. The following pictures of Montagu's harrier aren't mine. They were taken by Steve Ray (Greater Kent Birder) and are used with his permission.

George was born in Wiltshire in 1753. He pursued a military career, becoming a Captain in the army 1775, 3 years after he married Ann, a daughter of the 3rd Earl of Bute. In 1776 he was posted to America during the War of Independence. A member of George's company was killed in battle in 1777 and George relinquished his commission 2 weeks later. Contemporary reports indicate George was an honourable man who was deeply distressed by the brutality of soldiers towards civilians.

His time in America seems to have kindled his interest in natural history; through shooting unusual American birds that he wanted to show his family (There were no digital cameras in the 18th century.) George later rejoined the Militia in Wiltshire and attained the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. He started started writing in around 1792 and in 1795 was elected as a Fellow of the Linnean Society. He was clearly a naturalist of some note by this time. Tragically he died of tetanus 3 days after stepping accidentally on a rusty nail. He contributed a vast amount to our understanding of native species of birds, snails and fish, and more besides. His legacy lives on.

More information

A good biography of George Montagu by Tony Pratt (2003) is here.

George's paper on Hen Harriers (Transactions of the Linnean Society, May 5th 1807) is online here at the Internet Archive.

George also has a fish named after him.

If you wish to purchase a copy of Lister's book on shells it will set you back 16,000 Euros (excluding VAT). Phew!

A jolly good key to UK snails (specific to the Bristol area) is here.

More information on Monacha cantiana is here on Animal base. I couldn't see any hairs on the snails I found but here's a picture of a young hairy one.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

I'm called Little Buttercup

As it was a Bank Holiday weekend and the weather was predictably cold and wet, we decided, en route to Ramsgate, to go and look in a muddy ditch in Fowlmead Country Park. I know, I know what you are thinking....'Mel leads a really exciting life'. I do too! This was no ordinary ditch. It was the ditch wherein Kingsdowner found the nationally rare grass poly (Lythrum hyssopifolium) last year. A brilliant bit of botanical detective work!

Here is the flooded ditch, which, I think I can promise now, you will see again later in the year. More Foulmud than Fowlmead down there.

Grass poly, growing below at RSPB Fen Drayton...

...likes disturbed ground and winter flooding. Not spring/summer flooding though. It flowers in June/July, so I wonder how this late flooding will affect this recently discovered population? As you can count the number of places where grass poly grows in the UK on one hand, its fate here will be interesting to watch. Emails (last year) to Natural England to inform them of this new site for an 'Endangered' species have so far not elicited a reply. Hmmm.

But, to go back a few steps. Before I'd even gotten out of the car, a voice said 'What's this little buttercup here? It looks different'. I scrambled out and looked down in the scraps of grass in the carpark. Indeed it does look different to any buttercup I've seen before.

For a start, it's small. This little buttercup (the whole plant) is about 5cm across. And the flowers have no petals or only a couple of petals. Every flower I looked at was missing petals (buttercups typically have 5).

This is small-flowered buttercup Ranunculus parviflorus, an increasingly scarce species and on the rare plant register for Kent. Having missing petals is usual in this species.

Whilst I enthral you with my tale of finding small-flowered buttercup at Fowlmead, you may wish to partake in some musical accompaniment. HMS Pinafore is one of my favourite Gilbert & Sullivan operas. Here's a saucy, modern interpretation of Little Buttercup's song in a production by Essgee of New Zealand.

Back to botany. 

This little buttercup is a plant of disturbed ground; building sites, broken turf, rabbit holes, track edges, etc.. Fowlmead is a recently disturbed site made up of shale spoil; a perfect spot :-) Its seeds seem to be long-lived in the seedbank so it's typical for it to turn up post-disturbance. Maybe not a huge surprise to find it here then? Well, there are no records close-by and it's a rare plant in East Kent. So where did it come from? Perhaps it was dormant in the spoil or soil brought into the site (I can't find out anything about this). 

A close-up of a flower shows the diagnostic down-turned (reflexed) sepals and hairy stems.

The fruiting head has hooked spines on the achenes (fruit containing the seed).

All in all a really exciting find. What other gems are still to be found at Fowlmead? Well, I visited last year with my niece, and found basil thyme (Clinopodium acinos) and narrow-leaved bird's foot trefoil (Lotus tenuis). I'm sure the site will yield more unusual and/or rare species.

Will plants like grass poly and the small-flowered buttercup be out-competed as the site matures, or will they survive because this is a country park where offroad cycling and other activity will maintain levels of disturbance beneficial to this annual little buttercup? I hope the latter.

Further Information
The Kent Botanical Recording Group has a project to survey for and record rare plants in the county. It's a proactive and welcoming group.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Shell Fest

Sandwich Bay is within spitting distance of home. At low tide, it's a long sandy beach and there's rarely another person in sight. Bliss. An excellent place to indulge a favourite past-time.

I love beach-combing. In a short time I'd acquired sodden trainers, wet socks, damp jean bottoms, soggy knees and pockets bulging with precious finds (and a good helping of sand). Here's a selection of acquired treasures, although let me say at the outset, that I'm a bit rocky on shell identification so any help would be much appreciated.

I've tried to group my finds in families. First up are bivalve molluscs.

Variable scallop Chlamys varia; a beautiful bivalve with unequal ears (auricles is the correct term for the appendages at the hinge). Lots of salmon pink mottled ones....

...and some were black...

..and one looked like a scallop/oyster hybrid!

Queen scallop Aequipecten opercularis has more equal ears. I'm not sure about my identification but these shells look different (wider?) to the variable scallops above (to me anyway).

The patterning is glorious.

Next up are gastropod molluscs. From left to right I reckon these are; a periwinkle and 4 whelks; common whelk, netted dog whelk, dog whelk and sting winkle.

The whelks have a siphonal canal leading from the aperture. The shell at the top is what I think is the periwinkle - it has no siphonal canal.

The siphonal canal is (I paraphrase from Wikipedia) the channel down which the siphon is extended (in a living animal). The siphon is the structure through which water is pulled into the mantle cavity and over the gill.

We found many common whelks Buccinun undatum. Its scientific name means wavy (undatum) trumpet (buccinum). It feeds on bivalve molluscs by either wedging open their shells or by boring holes in shells and injecting a chemical cocktail. This cocktail comprises of chemicals which soften the shell, paralyse the animal inside and start to digest it. The resulting nutritious soup is gorged on by the whelk.

The netted dogwhelk Nassarius reticulatus is a really pretty whelk with a criss-crossed reticulated patterning. 

Humans are not the only animals to consider oysters a delicacy. I only found a single oyster drill or sting winkle Ocenebra erinacea. Its name suggests a fondness for oysters and it's regarded as a pest on oyster beds.

There's also an Atlantic oyster drill Urosalpinx cinerea which was introduced (unintentionally) to UK waters and is now found off the Essex and Kent coasts.

Is the damage on this tellin (?) caused by a boring whelk?

I got a shock when I picked up these whelks :-))

Hermit crabs. The one on the left is living in a netted dog whelk. The one on the right is in a...well, I wondered if this was an Atlantic oyster drill shell? I'm not sure. Hermit crabs are actually more like a very small lobster than a crab. This one looks as if it could do with a new residence.

There are 15 or so species of hermit crab in UK waters. The most frequently found species in rock pools and on sandy beaches is the common hermit crab, Pagurus bernhardus.

This delicate conical gastropod (1cm tall) looks like a small painted topshell Calliostoma zizyphinum, although it was all pearly, creamy white. I only found the one.

There were quite a few grey topshells Gibbula cineraria. Most were 1cm tall or less.

Gibbula is from the Latin for hump and cineraria means ash coloured. Its name manes little ash coloured hump. It has an umbilicus next to the shell aperture.

Slipper limpets Crepidula fornicata were a regular find. This one is covered in encursting bryozoans.

They are actually gastropod molluscs - even though they're not curly and whorled. I wrote about slipper limpets on my old blog.

All the shells in the next photo are less than 1cm long. Just above the pink scallop and under the 'little ash coloured humps' is a cowrie.

As it's 'spotless' I'm guessing it's an arctic cowrie Trivia arctica. They feed on sea squirts. Very dainty shell which I've subsequently lost :-(

When I was rooting around amongst the sand, I came across this isty-bitsy thing.

From its pentaradial symmetry, its clearly an echinoid of some sort. Appropriately it's called a pea urchin Echinocyamus pusillus.

That's a penny by the way :-))

A picture of a live animal can be seen here. They feed on detritus, marine algae and plankton. Below is the underside.

The mouth is the big hole and the anus is the small hole. Of course, this is only the sun-bleached outer skeleton of the animal.

I thought this was a jelly fish but on getting home and consulting my books, I reckon it's a sea gooseberry Pleurobrachia pileus.

Incredibly I find they are not related to jellyfish atall but are classified in a separate phylum Ctenophora. They move using cilia, which are arranged in rows so give it the name comb-jelly.

I wasn't the only one indulging in a little beach-combing.

Turnstone, Sandwich Bay

Further Information
Sandwich Bay is home to the Sandwich Bay Bird Observatory Trust. Worth every penny of the membership fee. 
The best website I've found, by far, on British marine bivalves is Amgueddfa Cymru (National Museum of Wales)
Field Studies Council webpages on The Seashore.