Category Archives: Flora

Mapping the land

A sense of ‘place’ is very important to me. Understanding my ‘Patch’ in the UK requires understanding a bit about East London, Epping Forest, Essex, English parkland, scrub, grassland, and woodland.

I have written many words about the ‘place’ of the French ‘Patch’; the Mediterranean scrub (maquis and garrigue), the foothills of the Pyrenees, Aleppo Pine woodland etc. Context is important, whether that be geographical, geological, climate, botanical, etc.

For these reasons, I am slightly obsessed with mapping the land. I have done a bit of that before, but I wanted to share some free online tools that I find super useful when trying to understand the patch that I study.

First, location. The blue dot below shows you how close we are to the Mediterranean and to the Pyrenees.

France map

Thanks to Google Maps for this and the other maps

Second: area. The ‘Patch’, as I define it, sits within a trapezoid of four small French villages. The total area that I watch for birds and other flora and fauna is just under a whopping 10km squared. I know this because a website allows me to calculate it pretty accurately:

Blanes patch area

Remember that I am the only person who ‘works’ this Patch from a wildlife perspective, and only a few times a year. To set it in broader context, it is interestingly almost exactly twice the size as my London Patch (France c.10km2 vs Wanstead c.5km2) which is Wanstead Flats, Wanstead Park and some intervening streets combined as well as being ‘worked’ or watched by several other people on a regular basis.

In terms of elevation, the lowest point on the French Patch is around 166 metres above sea level whilst the highest point (Mont Major) is a pretty lofty 534m. My wife took the picture below of me standing on the highest point looking down over the Southern valley with the Pyrenees away in the distance.


For another reference point, the Wanstead patch is exceedingly flat and low in comparison; ranging from 7m above sea level to 30m (that is the height of a medium sized tree!).

Although I know my way around the Patch pretty well now after a decade of regular walks, I have still found it useful to map key landmarks and paths on top of Google Map images to help me get a sense of scale.

Macro map Blanes

The entire Patch and surrounding villages

To give a sense of perspective, the red marked ‘track’ (or ‘chemin’), that we have to drive to reach the house, is almost exactly 2km long. If you are wondering how I can be so precise, it is because Google Maps has a helpful tool to measure distance accurately.

Track distance

Zooming in a bit from the colour-coded annotated map above, I have produced several more detailed maps showing routes of walks and landmarks, such as the example below. As you can see, I don’t exactly use scientific or formal names for the routes and places on the Patch (hence the ‘steep bit’) and will sometimes name places after wild features or species that I associate the area with, e.g., “Bee-eater Valley”, “Holm Oak Wood”, and “Griffon Vulture Hill”.

Mont Major

Using the nifty 3D functions on Google Maps (no, this isn’t a sponsored post), the topography is brought to life a little more by the the image below, with the house marked with a blue dot and the highest peak to the top left at the end of the orange line.

3D Blanes map

The main stream which rises on the Patch and flows West then North towards the little town of St Pierre-de-Champs is named after the land (or vice versa). ‘Ruisseau de Blanes’ is some 5km long (again thanks to the tool on a well known free online map) and joins a tributary of L’Orbieu river which, in turn, joins the river Aude (which shares a name with the department/province we live in) and flows into the Mediterranean just North of Narbonne.

Ruisseau de Blanes

For much of the year, the stream bed of Ruisseau de Blanes is dry above ground. As part of my obsession with understanding every bit of the Patch, the other day I decided to walk along the bed and track my way to the edge of the Patch. This is far easier said than done, as some sections of the river are inaccessible, extremely steep, or heavily overgrown.


Looking back upstream with the outcrop we call ‘Eagle Peak to the top left


Scrambling my way over an ancient rock fall on the stream bed

At points the silence, that is so alien to my London sensibilities, was almost overwhelming. No traffic, no planes, no running water, no summer insects, very little bird noise. A Raven‘s deep croak echoed in the valley and got louder and louder until the giant corvid came into view low over the trees. I was staggered how loudly I could hear its wingbeats; wingbeats which sped up rapidly when the bird caught sight of me. The different pitches of the wingbeat of every bird that I came across became clear in the silence, even the high speed flutter of firecrest and Goldcrest as they darted from tree to tree.

It was a jolly adventure. Jolly that was, until I worked my way back the way I came and realised I had lost the point at which the woodland path joined the riverbed. I then remembered that when I had broken out of the heavy maquis onto the stream bed, I had taken a photograph looking downstream. I studied the picture and walked backwards trying to make the puzzle fit. Eventually, I found the right point (took another picture – see below – to illustrate the story) and then found the hidden path to the right.

Blanes brookv2

Image to the left taken about an hour before the one on the right

Of course, we have lost so many of the ancient instinctive skills of tracking and mind mapping the land that our ancestors would have used daily (and without the use of camera phones and Google Maps!)

Throughout history I imagine we have always looked for features to give us a sense of place. On the Patch we have a tiny remote chapel that is but a node on a huge long pilgrimage walk.

I often drop by, noting the goat droppings on the floor and the rusty little cross on a makeshift rock altar. But yesterday I noted a new feature, above the crucifix and some christian graffiti was a twisted stick. I don’t know what this stick was, but I perceived it as an echo of a more ancient religious mandala; a pagan offering, perhaps, helping to place this little religious building in the natural world around it. A sense of ‘place’ that seems to stand outside of time.



Winter fresh

This morning was a perfect early winter morning: ground frost persisting in the shadows where the sun’s rays, piercing through the blue, failed to reach. The Patch looked pristine.


Fred Wigg and John Walsh Towers rising above Cat & Dog Pond

The patch birds seemed extra sharp and fresh today too. Last year a female Stonechat  overwintered in the scrub around Cat & Dog Pond. This winter she has returned or been replaced by a new winter-fresh female who traced inscrutable dot-to-dot patterns around me by flitting from one perch to another and occasionally dodging an aggressive Robin.


Female Stonechat (Saxicola rubicola)

This female even strayed to the western extreme of her assumed territory and perched up on the residential walls bordering the Patch and overlooked by Fred Wigg and John Walsh towers.


This Stonechat was not the only fresh-faced winter bird I spent time watching this morning.

I find something particularly appealing about first winter Black-headed Gull and Common Gull:


Common Gull (Larus canus)

I took the picture above whilst fulfilling my water-gauge monitoring duty. The immature feathers on the wing coverts are what first grab our attention, but I find the solid black primaries (lacking the ‘mirrors’ it will gain next year) and the neat black tip on the bill attractive as well as distinctive.

Jubilee pond has been duck-poor so far, although this week the number of diving ducks had increased slightly with at least 12 Tufted Duck and three Pochard diving and then glistening brilliantly with iridescence in the sun.


Tufted Duck (Aythya fuligula)

I went to see a photographic exhibition on trees today and saw some wonderful photos including some taken by my patch colleagues. Trees on the Patch have just passed that Autumn/Winter transition where there are now more bare branches than leaf-adorned ones. But, where trees are still cloaked by carotenoid and flavonoid-rich leaves, the results are quite spectacular.


Sliver Birch (Betula pendula) on Perch Pond, Wanstead Park

The Inbetweeners: a short story of seasonal change

There is a transition. A point in-between seasons that is neither one nor the other. A chronological no-man’s land, so to speak. A seasonal limbo of…

…This is nonsense of course. Seasonality is a human construction to assist us in making sense of the passage of natural time; applying order to the highly relative flow of change.

Nevertheless, a riddle could be written: ‘when are there many swifts, but at the same time… none?’. The answer, of course, sits in the middle of our ‘summer’ holidays, but many, many weeks after the solstice. The locally breeding swifts have departed, or mostly, and the gathering flocks of swifts in the sky are passage birds.

Other birds are moving too. A south-bound Wheatear has been seen, and a number of bright Willow Warbler have been found on the patch. Far more than the one or two pairs that we believe have bred locally.

I was looking out for these, and hoping to see other passage migrants – perhaps an early returning flycatcher – when I heard a strange two-tone disyllabic call from within the lime trees in our SSSI area of the Wanstead Flats. I heard it again and again, from within the trees. I even videoed the sound (click here).

And then the tiny bird emerged from the foliage. In the morning light I thought it was a young Willow Warbler with a very odd call and missing some tail feathers, but studying the calls, it appears to be one of the young Chiffchaff from the patch.


Common Chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita)

As some birds leave, and others pass through, other creatures hold on to the last strips of summer. Peak butterfly time has been and gone. But luckily not all of them have disappeared yet. I saw my first Brown Argus on the patch on Saturday (my 25th species of butterfly here) and photographed one again today…


Brown Argus (Aricia agestis)

The diagnostic black spots on the forewing are clearly showing in this photo, which help distinguish the argus from the similar looking female Common Blue. Of course, no such difficulty exists with males – also still on the wing.


Common Blue (Polyommatus icarus)

Seasons change. Or so we imprint on the natural flow. If you need further evidence that Autumn is coming, you should have seen some of the giant fungi that have sprouted up recently, including these:


Unknown fungi

The art of looking closely

Recently I have started studying plants far more carefully than before. This is not so much learning about the plant, as searching for galls on the plant. Some are easy to overlook such as the tight leaf edge rolls on Common Beech caused by the mite, Acalitus stenapsis:


Leaf edge roll caused by mite, Acalitus stenapsis

But in searching for galls, I have also started to notice other things.

At first I thought the red spots at the base of wild cherry leaves were galls. I now know they are glands, or ‘extrafloral nectaries’ to name them properly.


If the plant comes under attack from some kind of animal, the glands exude a scent which attracts different types of animal that will likely feed on the attacking pests. This knowledge would still be outside of my awareness were it not for my interest in, and search for, galls.

I also wouldn’t have found this Swallow-tailed Moth had I not been studying the underside of leaves for galls.


Swallow-tailed Moth (Ourapteryx sambucaria)

Nor indeed this wonderfully coloured and cryptically marked micro-moth:


Grapholita janthinana

My new-found interest in the small has led to the acquisition of an 10X magnification eye-glass to study my quarry better.


Two Knopper galls on acorn caused by gall wasp, Andricus quercuscalicis

To be honest, Knopper Galls do not really need magnification to appreciate them, but other galls are so tiny they really benefit from it:


Gall caused by asexual generation of gall wasp, Neuroterus anthracinus

This year on the patch I have been hunting fruitlessly, so far, for the Brown Argus Butterfly whose wing undersides resemble relatively closely the Common Blue:


Common Blue (Polyommatus icarus)

It is only by careful and close study that we truly get to know a species, sometimes taking such efforts to simply differentiate one species from another, such as the Dingy Footman from the Common Footman, Scarce Footman or others from the large eilema genus of moth.


Dingy Footman (Eilema griseola)

As a birder, I have become trained in noticing subtle movements, sounds, colours, and shapes at distance. But this summer, honing my skills in looking at things more closely and carefully, has opened up wonderful new worlds.


Male Long Hoverfly (Sphaerophoria scripta)

From galls to gulls (and back to galls)

The Summer ‘silly season’ in patch birding – when self-respecting birders go off and get new hobbies like… er?… surveying plant galls, or lichen, or when they attempt to turn gin and tonic drinking into an Olympic sport – may be coming to an end somewhat faster than I expected.

The quiet month of June normally leaks a little into July, but one of my patch colleagues shattered that peace last Saturday with news of an extremely early ‘Autumn’  Common Redstart on the Patch. He also found what may have been a juvenile Yellow-legged Gull. I was busy doing other stuff that morning, but returned for an afternoon wander.

The Redstart was nowhere to be found in the early afternoon heat so I strolled onto the football pitches. The pitch-roost of gulls is still pretty small at the moment, but there was a reasonable selection of non-breeding birds that was worth scanning as I was rather keen to ensure YLG joined my 2017 patch list.

I could almost immediately see that one of the young, and very pale, Herring Gull‘s was colour-ringed. It was only when it took flight that the ring came clear of the grass and was readable as Orange L1YT. I am still waiting to see full details, but I understand it is likely to be a ‘Pitsea’ bird.


Young Herring Gull (Larus argentatus): ‘L1YT’

I followed it as it moved from flock to flock on the pitch when a slightly bulkier gull flew in behind it. I instantly knew it was different, and you can see that the bill, face mask, and tail – amongst other things – give away the ID as Yellow-legged Gull, but also point to this being a different bird from the one Tony had seen earlier.


Yellow-legged Gull (Larus michahellis)

Aside from the juvenile gull, there was little else of interest in avian terms so I reverted back to studying leaves, with my best find being this impressive fig gall caused by an aphid on English Elm:


Tetraneura ulmi

In case you were to think that my day was solely spent with gulls and galls (some people’s idea of wildlife hell), I also counted double figures of species of butterfly with Small Copper being new for the year on the patch for me.

The Plant Invaders: Part I (Galls)

“a sort of botanical glory-hole”
― John Wyndham, The Day of the Triffids, 1963

That animals eat, and make homes from, plants, is something we learn at a very young age. But fewer of us seem to be aware of the very much more complex manipulations of living plants that some organisms conduct. Sometimes the plant tissue itself is distorted by another organism. A growth forms. We call these growths, galls.

IMG_8287v1 Andricus kollari BW20170617v2

Marble gall formed by a parasitic wasp (Andricus kollari) on Pedunculate Oak (Quercus robur)

The nature and shape of these galls can vary wildly: from hard nutty growths, to soft fleshy lumps; from tiny specks on leaves, to giant weighty tumours on trees. The ’causer’, to give the parasitic organism its correct term, is often a very small invertebrate such as a mite, midge, wasp (if you are thinking of large stinging black an yellow things, you are in the wrong ballpark altogether), or aphid; but can also be fungi, bacteria, and even other plants (mistletoe for example). The ‘hosts’ are often specially chosen and parasitised by specialist causers, meaning that if you see a nail gall on the leaf of a Common Lime, it has been caused by a different species to the similar gall on the closely related Small-leaved Lime.

IMG_6489 Eriophyes tiliae BW20170624v2

Nail gall caused by a mite (Eriophyes tiliae) on the leaf of Common Lime (Tilia x europaea)

When invertebrates are involved, galls are formed to provide shelter, sustenance, and/or protection to the causer and/or its offspring. Sometimes the lifecycle of a gall causer can be so complex that different stages of metamorphosis can require different, sometimes multiple, host plants (I have a pear tree in my garden infected by a fungus that will require juniper to conduct the next stage of its vital process).

IMG_1311v1 Crytosiphium artemisiae OSW20170624v2

Gall caused by an aphid (Cryptosiphium artemisiae) on the leaves of Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris)

Galls fascinate me. Unlike birds and butterflies, they stay still when you want to study or photograph them. They straddle the worlds of botany and zoology (the study of plant galls is called Cecidology, in case you were wondering), and form a welcome distraction to the lack of interesting migrant birds on the patch during the quiet summer months.

Armed with no equipment, other than a camera phone, and very limited background knowledge, I have managed to photograph and identify at least thirty types of plant gall on my local patch. I am confident that I shall find many more.

IMG_5038v1 Neuroterus numismalis and quercusbaccarus WF20170617v2

Oak Spangle galls of wasps (Neuroterus numismalis) and (Neuroterus quercusbaccarus)

Birch gallv2

Growth on an ancient birch formed by bacteria (Agrobacterium tumefaciens)

IMG_1059v1 Biorhiza pallida WF20170507v2

Oak apple gall formed by a wasp (Biorhiza pallida) on Oak host


Blitzing spiders and stringing butterflies

A weekend of wildlife began with a sunset.


Heronry Pond, Wanstead Park (having been re-filled)

A crowd of people waited in the warmth (we are about to break June temperature records again in London with five consecutive days when the mercury has topped out over 30 degrees centigrade) and watched dark shapes scythe through the sky.

We had come to watch bats, but in the light cloudless skies of the evening, it was a huge flock of swifts at first that cut through smoke-like murmurations of midges rising up from the trees like Ashphodel souls.

The bats did come out later, also appearing silently from the trees, and were silhouetted against the sky or water like the bat-sign from comic legend. Silent, that is, apart from the fact that several of us were armed with bat detectors. Common Pipistrelle were picked out from their tiny shapes in the sky, but also from the fast-paced pricking at frequencies well out of range of human hearing. Also too high to hear unaided, but positively bass-like compared with their tiny cousins, were the abstract beats of the beefy Noctule bats punching and pulsing out of the speakers in a way that would have many hip-hop artists drooling with envy.

Friday night ended, not with multiple gin and tonics, as is my normal wont, but with the strangely hospital-like glare of moth traps drawing some moths, but tens of thousands of midges and other tiny flying creatures of the night.


Moth (and midge!) trapping

All of this activity was for our local conservation group’s annual bio-blitz weekend. Check us out here: Wren Group.


The wonderful, knowledgeable Tricia Moxley teaching us about introduced and wild plants

I started Saturday leading several of my neighbours (people I know and people I didn’t) on a walk around our local wood. I talked a lot about trees, but the highlights were the butterflies including a year-first Ringlet and a location (but not full patch) first with a Purple Hairstreak (a species that would get me in trouble the following day).


Ringlet butterfly (Aphantopus hyperantus)


A temporarily trapped Purple Hairstreak (Neozephyrus quercus) and a rather disinterested baby

Overall, it was a reasonable weekend for butterflies. I counted thirteen species in total (a little way off my record patch day total of 16 from last July).


Large Skipper (Ochlodes sylvanus)


Small Skipper (Thymelicus sylvestris)*

The number ’13’ is unlucky for some. Unlucky ever since that 13th disciple betrayed Christ for some silver. Well, I too felt mildly betrayed, or was it simply embarrassed, soon after I saw another hairstreak on the ground near some elm trees whilst I was trailing behind one of Tricia’s walks. Elms, as in the favoured tree of the White-letter Hairstreak

I peered down at the little lepid and started breathing a little faster when no large orange eye peered back at me from the hindwing. The hindwing was a little crumpled, not only obscuring the eye, but also rippling the hairstreak into a ‘W’ shape. The newly emerged butterfly was promptly, but gently scooped, into an inspection pot and whisked off to be held aloft triumphantly in front of the wondering eyes of my fellow Wren members. But, on closer inspection, it was, of course, simply another Purple Hairstreak despite my earlier innocent efforts to ‘string’ it into something more exciting.


Purple Hairstreak again with the offending unfurling hindwings

So we may not have scored any super rare butterflies, but the far less excitable (than me), and far more expert, arachnologist, David Carr did find some great spiders.


The maestro at work, David Carr

We believe that one of his finds of the weekend was the 19th specimen ever found in the UK, of Philodromus buxi:

IMG_1946v2 Philodromus buxi

Philodromus buxi

IMG_1702 v2

David and Araneus triguttatus

Across all the activities, we had about 300 participants. An opportunity for many people to find out a little more about the wildlife on our doorstep.

*All photos on here were taken with the iPhone 7. I really am very impressed with the quality of the camera on it.