Friday, 20 April 2012

Bogging sphagtastic

For some reason, I was fool enough to organise a day's outing to the heights of the moor on Saturday, in an effort to learn and improve some identification of Sphagnum mosses - bog-moss; the stuff that makes those fat, hummocky cushions on the bogs that look so invitingly soft, yet mask such decidedly soggy ground.

Accordingly 10 (yes, ten!) of us assembled at Whiteworks, just to the south of Princetown, with the cloud roiling and bubbling up to the south-east and a forecast of possible showers - perhaps a little wintry - to come. We were fortunate enough to have secured the help of Mark, county bryology recorder and Sphagnum enthusiast, and Roy, the other bryophyte expert in the group (the rest of us can probably best be described as anything between enthusiastic amateurs and burgeoning improvers) to guide us through the minefield of mosses.

Setting off over the ridge we were immediately sidetracked by a ruined building which contained a number of interesting (non-Sphagnum) mosses as yet unrecorded in that tetrad, such as Rough-stalked Feather-moss Brachythecium rutabulum. We soon found the enthusiasm to head onwards at a brisk pace, only to hit a patch of wet heath which contained our first Sphagna... a rich, wine-red hummock of Sphagnum rubellum (or S. capillifolium rubellum, depending on who you listen to). This was a nice clear and easy species to get our teeth into: not only red as a glass of port, but with such tight-packed individual plants that it resembled a cauliflower. Less simple was a soft-looking, almost weedy specimen: Sphagnum subnitens. This was much less obvious - more what we were all expecting! A little further down the slope and we bumped into a rather apologetic patch of Sphagnum tenellum, softer and more soggy-looking even than the subnitens. This species almost falls apart in your fingers, but has a characteristic 'lobster-claw' effect to the tips of the branches when you look with a hand-lens.
Sphagnum (capillifolium) rubellum. Like a cauliflower soaked in port. Mmm.

Duly impressed with these three starters, we headed down to the bog itself, across a pale yellow-white mass of last year's growth of Molinia.Almost the moment we hit the flatter ground, we bumped into our fourth species: the depressingly variable Sphagnum denticulatum. This is a fairly key species to know, particularly given its tendency to be found in a wide variety of habitats. A twisty kind of moss with branches that are vaguely reminiscent of cows-horns, the best association I can make to remember it is Desperate Dan's famous cow pies. Even if the Beano was always more my cup of tea as a child... A few paces further and we hit another species again: Sphagnum palustre; brown, long-branched and occurring in great sprawling mats under our feet. At this point we learn that this is typical of a whole tribe of Sphagna, having cells which lift from their leaves, giving a roof-tile effect to the branches when you look at them through a lens.
Sphagnum palustre. Similar to papillosum, but with longer branches. Looks a little less spiky to me, and perhaps - in this case - a bit more ochre.

By this time, the cloud had roiled up sufficiently to start discharging, and a grey hazy veil descended on the hillside to the southeast of us. This approached us steadily until we were caressed by the first gentle drops of rain. Nothing daunted - for are not mosses characteristic of humid habitats in any case? - we pressed on. More Sphagna were found which were treated with some caution by Mark and Roy: these looked as if they might be representatives of Sphagnum inundatum and S. fallax, but Mark's caution won out to the degree that he took samples home to identify with certainty under the microscope. Then another - more definite - species: Sphagnum papillosum. Similar to S. palustre, and with the same roof-tile structure, yet subtly different: shorter, fatter branches, preferring a slightly different habitat.

This is a bit of uncertain Sphagnum. Perhaps there should be a category: Sphagnum confusum, though there's probably already a species with that name. Anyway, this could be fallax, or it could be flexuosum. It doesn't help that it's slightly out of focus too. The darker species is probably S. inundatum, though it could conceivably also be some very denticulatum. Aargh!

Sphagnum papillosum. Short branches, looks pretty spiky in close-up and is quite a brownish-buff plant.

By this time the rain had turned to hail. Hah! Hail. We laugh at hail. We settled down to eat lunches, backs to the wind and hail, watching the hillside opposite gradually turn white. A snifter of coffee later the weather eased, and we gathered our fortitude and set out once again, towards the peak of the bog. We soon encountered Sphagnum capillifolium (or S.c.capillifolium) - a looser and more attenuated moss than rubellum, yet with the same rich wine-red suffusion. Lying in a wet hollow nearby was the next species: S. cuspidatum, which has the unenviable yet memorable look of a drowned kitten when hauled from its watery lair. By this time we were well on a roll, and the return of the hail was little more than a niggly inconvenience. As we tramped across the bog we came to an indicator of good-quality habitat: low hummocks of S. magellanicum, a broad-headed Sphagnum which looks as if it's been dipped in long-dried blood.
Sphagnum (c) capillifolium. Rather longer outer branches to the head (capitulum), but still a wine-red beast.

Sphagnum cuspidatum. Fluffy stuff.

And there are plenty of bryophytes which like to grow on the Sphagnum too: in this case lots of Polytrichum strictum growing on a hummock of S. rubellum

Sphagnum compactum? Or perhaps some papillosum masquerading as compactum?
Our search took us onto the main body of raised bog, where we sought a true Dartmoor rarity: Sphagnum austinii. The only prior record of the species was in 1967, when it was noted as growing in numerous tall hummocks across the northern part of the bog. The hummocks remain, but unfortunately the Sphagnum appears to have long since died out; its mass providing a perfect haven for a number of other species of moss and of liverwort, as well as making a nice dry shelter for voles, judging by the holes dug in the sides. By the time we'd searched across the top of the bog for any trace of austinii the hail had begun to drift several centimeters deep, so reluctantly we gathered ourselves together and trudged back to the cars.
And the final species: a bit of Sphagnum magellanicum poking through the hail.

Growing on the old presumed Sphagnum austinii hummocks were plenty of other interesting bryophytes, including the liverwort Mylia anomala

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

East Anglia

An invitation to a friend's wedding gave us our first major travelling test with Sabina. The wedding was in Norwich and we knew that we had the chance to stay with some relatives and some friends, so it seemed like a good idea. Accordingly, we set out on a (yet another) fine spring morning soon after breakfast and trundled steadily along the M5 to Bristol, then east along the M4. We planned in a couple of breaks to allow for feeds and nappy changes - an immediate change from our usual routine - and motorway service stations being what they are, I planned the stops for some local wildlife trust reserves. So, we took our first break at Clouts Wood & Markham Banks, just south of Swindon.

This turned out to be a narrow valley with steep grassed slopes on the northern side - calcareous no less, so likely to be rather interesting from our point of view, but not much to be seen at this time of year - and a deciduous woodland on the southern slope. A small stream trickled gently along the valley floor, with occasional (and rather dry-looking) mires feeding in to it.

The sun continued to shine, the birds sang - though still no more migrants than we've already been hearing, so Chiffchaff and Blackcap joining the resident Goldfinches, Blackbirds, Robins, Wrens and Woodpigeons, and the woodland flora looked - rather unsurprisingly - much the same as we see round here: Bluebells, Ramsons, Primroses, Dog's-mercury and so on. Despite the relative familiarity of the site's wildlife, it was a near-idyllic spot to stop and break a boring journey. We walked the length of the valley to the scramble up the escarpment, to find a rather disappointing surround of intensive arable and dairy farming, and a newly-planted woodland shielding what looked like a set of industrial units. Can't have it all, I guess.

We headed back to the journey. Several Red Kites later, and a fairly rapid drive around the north side of the M25 and we were headed off up the A12 to the next break: Tiptree Heath, in Essex. By the time we left the car, Sabina was wailing and we were both getting a bit tired. Naomi parked - almost abandoned the car - and we scurried to the shade of a young oak to feed and change the beast. She wasn't really in the mood for food, just bored with lolling in the car-seat, so we walked briefly around part of the reserve - to the tune of a Willow Warbler - and slugged out the last few miles to Stoven for our first stop.

The evening passed in a bit of a haze: much family catch-up, a short walk around the local fields (many many Red-legged Partridges, a couple of Brown Hares and the odd Yellowhammer) and then a slide into sleep.

Next morning was my watershed moment: my first visit to the quintessential RSPB reserve: Minsmere. Naomi blithely promised Bitterns and all sorts of interesting goodies, so I was well primed for the event. The drive there took us along increasingly smaller roads (that looks wrong somehow, but decreasingly smaller really doesn't work. Incrementally? Whatever.) and over a tedious succession of speed-humps. Finally, however, we arrived and fed the baby in the carpark, as flocks of Black-headed Gulls squalled overhead against the blue. Amongst the squeals and squalls were a couple of deeper, more melodic calls: a pair of Mediterranean Gulls wheeling amongst the rest, wings shining-white compared to the duskier underwings of the Black-headed Gulls. Not a bad start.

Minsmere wasn't, to be honest, quite what I was expecting, but was still an interesting site. The main scrape was heaving with Black-headed Gulls, all settling in and pairing up for the breeding season, with a smattering of Avocets also beginning to pair up and a handful of ducks either fuelling up for their return to the north or perhaps thinking of breeding themselves: Shoveler busily patrolling the water with bills just submerged, Wigeon waddling across the grass tugging away at the new spring growth, and a handful of Mallards, Gadwall and a couple of Teal loafing quietly on the water's edge here and there.

The main scrape at Minsmere, from the hide along the shingle ridge.

Black-headed Gulls and a lone Greylag

Just to the south lies Sizewell nuclear power plant - it's amazing how nuclear sites tend to be associated with good birding spots; in part because of the warm water outfalls from the cooling process, but still.

We walked steadily around the reserve, never really hanging around too much as Sabina became fractious if we spent too long in one place. We were fortunate though, in that we managed to bump into not one, but two Bitterns, stealthily emerging from the reed fringe, and a party of Bearded Tits bouncing and pinging erratically in last year's reed growth nearby. Feeding time loomed for us all, so we retreated to the shade of the woodland fringe and spent a contemplative hour watching a pair each of Coal Tits and Great Tits investigating the knotholes in the trees, searching for suitable nest-sites. Spring looming indeed...

Spot the birdie

Creeping out of the reeds

OK, not the most up-close and personal pictures you'll ever see, but with a 105mm lens, I think it's not too bad an effort.