Sunday, June 29, 2008


Katydid - seen whilst assisting with fish cataloging.

As a very non PC Brit one of the things that struck me upon my arrival in the US of A was what great lengths people went to not to offend people of different race, creed, colour, sexuality or religion. It does seem, on occasion, to reach somewhat epic extremes but, in general, it is obviously well intended. There is one area, it seems, where this does not apply and the gloves really do seem to come off. I refer, of course, to which side of the fence you happen to be on in the great 'vertebrate or invertebrate issue!' LeConte's Haploa Haploa lecontei seen at a blacklight.

I happen to work somewhere were working with vertebrates immediately makes you a second class citizen. I have always thought this a great shame and also a missed opportunity. After all, the vast majority of people who work in the natural sciences are aiming for the same thing, preservation of a healthy and varied balance of species, both vert and invert. Harlequin Ladybug Harmonia axyridis, introduced from Asia.

I spent this weekend working at a BioBlitz where the usual lines in the sand were drawn and all the 'bug folks' were in their little groups and all the 'birders' or 'herpers' were in theirs. Don't you think it would be nice if there were less references to 'going to the dark side' - studying vertebrates and more unity between us? Reversed Haploa Haploa reversa, also came into the blacklight.

As a move in the right direction I have posted some pictures I took at the BioBlitz, not a spinal column amongst them! I was there to count birds and herps but also found these little beauties. And yes I know I have included an invasive species too but hey I am an 'alien' after all, at least according to immigration, although my little green horns aren't really that obvious!

Photo Credits - CJT


A bioblitz is when a group of biologists with numerous different fields of expertise get together to find and catalogue as many different species as possible, in a designated area in a twenty-four hour period. The list ranges from the tiniest of invertebrates through all forms of plant life, algeas and lichens and all the groups of vertebrates. And this is what I was doing from 4.30pm on Friday.
Some groups have an easier job then others, the birders for example just stroll of with binoculars and spotting scopes and list all the species they see or hear. Others have to work a little harder to find their species.This is Natalie from the Natural History Survey Team wading out to check her turtle traps! By the way, this is something she does five days a week as part of her job and does it as 'matter-of-factly' as the rest of us would cross the street! As you can see it is not exactly crystal clear water we are talking about here!
And this is Jamie from the Nature Museum struggling to find any aquatic life in one of the streams. Unfortunately, as with so many water courses these days, it had been adversely affected by pollution and/or fertiliser run-off further up stream so the pickings were slim. She managed to find a couple of species of fish and a small mussel though so every little helps.
I was with the 'herps' team, (reptiles and amphibians) which included Natalie and her turtle team and the rest of us staying more on terra firma! We had various boards in place around the area. (These are just sheets of plywood which are laid flat in the grass and left alone) they are very appealing as shelters for snakes. Our most common find was Garter Snakes Thamnophis sirtalis, as you can see, there was no shortage of them.
A more unusual find, one that we hoped for but could not guarantee was actually found by one of the 'bug guys' at 1.30am when he found it sliding across the path in front of him(!) is the Milk Snake Lampropeltis triangulum triangulum this is the only member of the King Snake family found in the Chicago region. The reason the King Snakes are so called is because they eat other snakes - hence the reason that this individual was not found under the boards with all the Garter Snakes!
We had already found the Red-bellied Snake, (as shown on the previous listing) so there was only one more expected species to find and we would have to wait until Saturday afternoon for that little beauty to be found. The Smooth Green Snake Opheodrys vernalis, it was particularly rewarding to see this species as it is becoming seriously threatened in many areas. It is insectivorous and so is being badly affected by the widespread use of pesticides.
As the afternoon wore on, some extremely large black clouds started to build up, but they did have the good manners to hold off until our twenty-four hours were almost up, which wasn't bad considering we had been forecast to have violent thunder storms during the night. Not the most appealing prospect when sleeping in a little tent!
So with almost one thousand species catalogued, everyone packed up their equipment, returned all specimens to their previous locations and beat a dignified retreat before the storm.

Photo Credits - Jamie Stubis and CJT

Friday, June 27, 2008


Do you really want to know.................
OK so it's not that bad, check out the following link for some idea of where I am right now.
We have just come in from the field where we have been black lighting and getting eaten alive by the biggest mosquitoes I have EVER SEEN!!
Earlier in the day we managed to catch handfuls of Garter Snakes Thamnophis sirtalis and a couple of little Red-bellied Snakes Storeria occipitomaculata occipitomaculata. More fun tomorrow!
Photo Credits - Jamie Stubis and CJT

Thursday, June 26, 2008


In case you are interested in seeing a bit more of Newlyn, Cornwall, check out this site -

(Thanks Frances!)

Monday, June 23, 2008


Well here I am back in Chicago, not feeling particularly thrilled about being back in the city so I went out for a walk in the park over my lunch hour to cheer myself up. As usual nature came up with a little something to bring a smile to my face! Not a great shot as I only had my phone with me, but you get the idea.

Photo Credits - CJT

Saturday, June 21, 2008


Tomorrow we set off back to Chicago. So goodbye to Cornwall for now. I will sign off with this evocative shot of the moon rising over a ruined engine house, a relic from the days of tin mining. Next time we are here it will be winter and the days will be much shorter. So back to Chicago...........

Photo Credits - Dominick V

Friday, June 20, 2008


This is the Cornish Coat of Arms, apart from the obvious images of a fisherman and a tin miner the other prominent character in the centre is the Cornish Chough. The Chough, Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax with its jet black plumage and bright red legs and curved beak, is a member of the crow family. For many years it was a feature of the Cornish coastline and became known as 'Cornwall's bird,' hence it's pride of place on the coat of arms. However, by the early 1950's the Chough had completely disappeared from Southern England. A change in farming techniques meant that hardy grazing species were no longer farmed on the Cornish coast so the closely cropped grassland that the Chough favours to forage on, was a thing of the past. It was either left to grow wild which essentially means it was overrun with gorse and bracken or it was turned over to more intensive farming. This combined with the fact that as the Chough became more scarce, egg collectors and illegal hunters were all the more determined to 'bag' a specimen meant that very soon the symbol of Cornwall had been completely extirpated from Southern England.

As a child I can remember visiting various places where Choughs were kept in captivity and it was always with a tinge of sadness that we were told of their demise in the wild. For many years various conservation groups talked about projects to reintroduce the Chough to the Cornish coastline but first it would be necessary to recreate the suitable habitat that the birds needed. Farmers who owned land along the coast were encouraged to join the project and start grazing shetland ponies or highland cattle along the clifftops.

The sight of these wooly characters roaming the clifftops is a little disconcerting when hiking the coastal footpath but they seem reasonably happy to leave you alone just as long as you leave them alone! After several years of re-establishing the correct habitat for the Choughs the next step was going to be to reintroduce some captive bred individuals. But, as is so often the way, nature took things under control and suddenly in 2001 three Choughs appeared on the cliffs on the Lizard Peninsula!

There was huge excitement amongst the ornithological groups and literally hundreds of people made the lengthly trek to see these new arrivals. A twenty-four hour watch was put on them to ensure that they were protected from hunters. The next year, much to everyones delight two of the birds paired off and started nesting. They had to be constantly monitored as egg collectors would see them as the ultimate prize.

The pair produced three chicks in 2002, all males and so the story continues - 2003 three chicks, 2 males and 1 female, 2004 four chicks, 2 males and 2 females, 2005 five chicks, 2 males and 3 females, 2006 eight chicks from two nests, 5 males and 3 females and 2007 nine chicks from two nests, 6 males and 3 females!

As the numbers have slowly increased the birds have moved to other areas of the coast of West Penwith and thay are all still being carefully monitored. Each bird has been uniquely ringed for easy identification and new nesting sites have twenty-four hour protection.
So, of course, on this visit I had to try to see these new arrivals. I had an approximate idea of where they were being seen and I had a reasonably good idea of what type of habitat they preferred so it was just a matter of a little bit of luck, and keeping my eyes open! It was a beautiful clear, sunny day, again so it was not exactly a hardship to be strolling along the cliff tops, next to the sea. There was plenty of bird activity, the usual suspects, gannets, gulls, fulmars, cormorants, jackdaws, stonechats, skylarks, it seemed like everything but the choughs were out and about enjoying the beautiful weather. My husband had got to the point where he (half joking) said that he didn't think these birds existed and I was at the point of thinking that I was not going to be lucky on this particular day. We were nearing the end of our walk, we walked round the final headland and there in front of us were five black birds, wheeling and calling over the cliff edge. I felt sure that it was just going to be another group of jackdaws (also black) but as we got closer I saw a glimpse of red! Finally, here they were circling overhead and riding the thermals created at the cliffs edge. After flying around us for a while, two of them flew down and landed in front of us whilst the other three flew on. My trusty camera man was already in position crouched in the grass and clicking away while the birds foraged in front of us. We stayed with them for ages just watching and feeling very privileged to be witnessing the return of a native species after over fifty years. Hopefully in another few years these endearing characters will be so common place along the Cornish cliffs again that they will just be included on the previously mentioned list of usual suspects that make up the wonderfully rich array of wildlife along the Cornish coast. At least now when people look at the Cornish coat of arms the bird that is shown centre stage is not a long gone character from the past but a relevant part of the Cornish scenery.

Photo Credits - Dominick V and CJT

Wednesday, June 18, 2008


Cornwall has an extraordinary number of ancient stone structures scattered across the countryside. The one shown above is Lanyon Quoit, it is thought to date from the Neolithic period (4000 to 3000 BC). In its original form it was supported by four huge uprights rather than the present three and was also, apparently, considerably taller. Some reports say it was possible to stand under it on horseback! The flat stone on the top weighs in at approximately thirteen and a half tons. Unfortunately, in the early eighteen hundreds the structure was damaged during a violent storm (One can only imagine the ferocity of a storm capable of damaging such a robust structure!) One of the uprights had been broken in the storm so when the structure was repaired it was a mere shadow of its former self, being considerably shorter and minus one of the uprights. In spite of this it is still an imposing sight when you first see it silhouetted against the sky, on the Cornish moorland. Its original use is open to debate, the common theory being that it is part of a burial site that would have originally been covered in earth. Some think that because it is so much larger than other burial sites of the time that it had greater religious significance. To me this just adds to the mystery of this extraordinary place. Another, better preserved quoit, is the nearby Chun Quoit, seen above. This quoit still shows remnants of the earthen mound that would have been built up over the stones. There are still four uprights supporting the top stone and it is much more of a standard size than the Lanyon Quoit. It is possible to see into the chamber which is paved with more granite pieces. Nearby are a Carn and an Iron Age castle and all three of these ancient sites line up perfectly on an east west alignment. Chun Quoit derives from the Cornish which means the 'House on the Downs.' Men-an-Tol, seen above, is perhaps one of the most unusual of the stone structures in this area. Apparently you have to pass three times through the round stone against the sun in order to prevent rickets! Needless to say we have all done this, and we have posted the family dog through to, and, so far no rickets!!
This structure is something of an enigma, there is no other example like it in the entire British Isles. Again because it is so ancient no one can say for certain what its original intended use was. Of course there are numerous theories. Some think it is part of a burial chamber, with the round stone being the entrance. Another thought is that the upright stones were originaly part of a circle of standing stones and that they were of religous significance. Still further theories suggest that this site was an astronomical observatory. Again, for me the mystery just adds to the appeal of this ancient site.

Photo Credits - Dominick V

Monday, June 16, 2008


It is possible to walk the entire length of the Cornish coast (and many other areas around the British Isles) on a glorious coastal footpath. The path is a combination of National Trust property, private property with public access, nature preserves and farm land.

At this time of year the path is alive with endless species of wildflowers so the whole area is a carpet of colour. Very often from the cliff top it is possible to see seals and dolphins romping around in the surf. Occasionaly, if you are really lucky you may see the fin of the incredible basking shark cruising by.
The cliffs are also home to numerous bird species. Fulmars, Kittiwakes and Cormorants all nest perilously on the sides of the cliffs. Gannets are a common sight, diving into the waters to catch fish, and Kestrels, Peregrine Falcons and Buzzards all hunt small mammals and birds along the coast. This Kestrel seemed oblivious to our presence and landed close in front of us.
As the air is so clear, lichen grows prodigously on all the rocks and many of the small trees. There are so many different species of lichen that very often the rocks are a patchwork of different colours. As you can see in the picture above, there is a particularly vibrant orange species that really stands out.
During the nineteenth century Cornwall was a huge producer of tin and as a result the entire peninsula is riddled with tin mines and the ruins of the engine houses. The mine shafts are something of a hazard and it is always advisable to stick to the path as often the the shafts are not marked or fenced off! People don't usually fall down them but the local rescue services are very practiced at rescuing peoples dogs from them! The engine houses have become a dramatic part of the Cornish scenery and are featured endlessly on postcards from the area. Where the path passes through farm land there will usually be either a stile, as seen in this picture or the woderfully named kissing gate. The stile allows you climb over a hedge or fence without damage to it or you. The kissing gate is a delightful contraption that is usually found next to a livestock gate and reduces the risk of anyone leaving the main gate open. The kissing gate corals two people close together as they go through it, hence the name. It makes hiking with a loved one that much more fun!For those of you still in doubt about the English weather, all these photos were taken on our current trip and the weather is fabulous again today so we are going to have lunch and then hike another section of the coast path! For more info about the coast path, check out

Photo Credits - CJT and Dominick V

Friday, June 13, 2008


The idea of a posting about hedgerows may seem a little odd but after listening to my husbands constant amazement about them, it sowed the seeds of the idea. Apparently to many people a hedge is a row of brushy type plants, but not in Cornwall! In Cornwall a hedge is a structure made from lumps of granite, usually ones that have been lifted out of a field in order to make the ground easier to work, then stacked to form a wind break at the edge of the field. Over time numerous species of native plants take a hold in all the little nooks and crannies between the rocks and as time goes on the rocky structure is obscured by a deceptively soft looking blanket of flowers. But don't be fooled by the colourful exterior - this structure still has a heart of stone! As many motorists find when they brush a little too hard against one! These hedgerows are a microcosom of life and I have tried to get a few pictures of some of the beautiful wild flowers that can be found living in them.

One plant that is quick to establish, is the aptly named, Thrift Armeria maritima maritima. It is not named Thrift because of any monetary connection but because of its ability to flourish in infertile conditions. This beautiful pink blossom is synonymous with cliff walks for me because as well as decorating Cornish hedgerows it is commonly found clinging stubbornly to the tops of cliffs! Unusually, through the ages, this plant has never really been found to have any major uses. However when dried it will keep its colour and so it is commonly used in flower arranging.

Another plant that is commonly seen nestled amongst the rocks in hedges is the Navelwort or Wall Pennywort Umbilicus rupestris. These somewhat bizzare names refer in various ways to the leaves. Pennywort because the size of the leaf was thought to be the size of an old English penny and Navelwort because the centre of the leaf looks rather like a belly button! This fleshy little plant is distibuted abundantly throughout western England and Wales. It is easy to miss when it is not flowering because often it will only show two or three little round leaves in a shady, moist spot in a hedge but as soon as the spike of green bell shaped flowers appear it becomes much more obvious.

An invasive species that has happily adapted to life amongst Cornish granite is the Hottentot Fig Carpobrotus edulis. It originaly was found in Africa where the Hottentot tribes people would eat the big fleshy fruit. But as with so many species, it was introduced by someone who thought it looked nice and now has taken a strong hold and flourishes throughout Cornwall in hedges and on cliffsides.

Valerian is another introduced species that is very happily established in Cornish hedgerows.
Red Valerian Centranthus ruber was introduced from the Mediterranean in the sixteenth century. As you can see from this photo, there is also a white flowered form of this species. Red Valerian is not to be confused with true Valerian which has many medicinal properties, however its young leaves can be used in green salads although it is recommended to boil the leaves because they
have a bitter taste.

A favorite plant of mine is the diminuitive Scarlet Pimpernel Anagallis arvensis. The name too is synonymous with the french revolution as it was the undercover name adopted by Sir Percy Blakeney in Baroness Orczy's novel. The flowers contain no nectar or scent and so are rarely visited by insects. It was once belived to be a cure for madness and to cure melancholy. This tiny flower is always a jewel to find nestled in a hedge. Occasionaly pink, white or even blue colour variations can be seen.

Common Restharrow Ononis repens is so called because its roots and matted stems are so strong that in the time of horsedrawn harrows it had the ability to tangle in and stop the harrow! Something tells me that in this mechanised age it may not be quite so effective! However when found twisting its way into a Cornish hedge it is very pretty. The root is supposed to taste good if chewed hence the plants alternative common name, wild liquorice.

A common hedgerow flower, the Red Campion Silene dioica is particularly profuse in Cornwall this year. Every hedge is a wild pallete of pinks with a combination of campions and foxgloves. Each Red Campion plant has flowers of one sex only, so two plants are needed to make seed. The Red Campion does hybridise with White Campion and the resulting plant is fertile and so capable of rehybridising with either Red or White Campion so there realy are an endless array of pinks to be seen with this plant. The scientific name comes from the greek god Silenus who was a merry drunken soul who was the life and soul, in much the same way this vibrant plant is sure to brighten any area that it grows in.

The Mallow family is so huge that I am not going to trust myself to accurately identify which one this is but its stunning purple blossoms were too beautiful not to be included in the posting. Hollyhocks, hibiscus and the cotton plant all belong in the same family. I think this is the Common Mallow Malva sylvestris but don't quote me on that! The young shoots have been used as a vegetable for centuries. A slightly more dubious property of mallow is its reputation as an anti-aphrodisiac! It was thought to promote calm, sober conduct.

The Speedwell group of flowers is another large group, all of which are rather similar and I do not trust my very limited flower identification abilities to say unequivocally which one this is. The Common Speedwell often seems to be found growing closely with Scarlet Pimpernell, which this one was, so maybe that is what it is. Whichever one it is, it was another tiny gem that I wanted to include just because it is so beautiful.

The Field Forget-me-not Myosotis arvensis is another tiny splash of colour than can easily be missed amongst the bigger brighter plants but its delicate shade of blue combined with the splash of yellow and white is a true delight. The story behind its somewhat unusual name is that one day a knight and his lady were walking along a river bank. The knight bent over to pick some flowers for his lady love but the weight of his armour caused him to lose his balance and fall into the river! As he was drowning, he threw the flowers to the river bank and called 'forget me not!' Since that time this flower has been associated with true love.

If when reading this posting you can confirm or correct any of my very amature plant identifications, please feel free to leave feedback in the comments section at the end of the posting. (You don't have to register or sign in or anything!) Thanks.

Photo Credits - CJT

Tuesday, June 10, 2008


As a child I always used to think that my mothers habit of letting her garden run riot was very 'untidy'! Now I am older I can see what she was achieving, especially in this day and age of everyone wanting a 'natural area' in their garden. I guess she was just ahead of the curve. When we arrived in Cornwall her garden was looking spectacular in its usual riotous way.

The palate of colours is endless with the splendid pink
fox-gloves Digitalis purpurea proving quite irresistable to every bee for miles around. As children I remember we used to wear the fallen blooms on the ends of our fingers! As you can guess from the scientific name, it does yield the heart stimulant drug digitalis. And the plant is very poisonous so our habit of wearing the blooms was probably not the best thing to have done!

I shall not even attempt to try to identify the numerous insects that enjoy the endless array of nectar sources other than by the simplest of common names that I learnt as a child and now know to cover numerous species under one not very accurate umbrella. After all this is not meant to be a science lesson, just a shared pleasure in a beautiful piece of ground.

I have to thank my husband for getting these beautiful photos of a bumble-bee entering the fox-glove flowers. He indulged my request for this specific shot and sat in the middle of the garden until he got it! Even when he stood on an ants nest he didn't give up! That has to be the true definition of love!!

The rest of these pictures are just a continuation of the theme of flowers and their various pollenators. This little bee is working a scented geranium species.

This little metalic green hover fly was really vivid but it was incredibly difficult to capture as the sun was so bright, so you'll just have to take my word for it!

Another favorite plant of mine is one that is affectionately known, in our family, as 'they don't grow that big!' It too seems irresistable to all things buzzing, from hover flies

To this beautiful big bumble-bee with her leg sacks stuffed full of pollen.

Finally a tiny little newly emerged cricket who was almost perfectly camoflauged on this potatoe plant leaf.

Photo Credits - Dominick V and CJT