Sunday, 13 July 2014

Grasses, Rushes and Sedges, oh my!

I went on a course!

Grasses, Rushes and Sedges as taught by Ben Averis and run by the Central Scotland Forest Trust. And it was brilliant! We met at the car park of Aberlady Local Nature Reserve, which is easy to reach by either car or bus, and is about an hour walk from Longniddry train station (as one of the course attendees found out!). I can highly recommend a visit, whether it's for the bird life, the plants (we saw some rare plants such as bog pimpernel and several less than common sedges), butterflies (we saw small skippers and others!) or just for a walk in a lovely place! Well worth a visit.

Aberlady LNR. Lovely day for a visit!
First off we met and found out what sort of level we were at. We were all pretty much at a level, mostly keen beginners with a small amount of knowledge.

The first plants we came across were common, pretty ubiquitous ones which are very good to be able to identify. These were False oat grass Arrhenatherum elatius, Cock's foot Dactylis glomerata, Couch Elytrigia repens, and Perennial rye-grass Lolium perenne. Moving onto the saltmarsh habitat (SM16 Festuca rubra salt-marsh community) we started to find others that we maybe hadn't come across before. Red fescue Festuca rubra was interesting to see, as fescues are notoriously similar and hard to tell apart. Ben gave us some handy pointers to use in the field which included what location and soils to enable us to be able to pinpoint certain species with more ease. Red fescue can be identified from other fescues due to it's slightly wider stem leaves, whereas all the others have wiry stem and basal leaves. On the saltmarsh, the red fescue is the only wiry leaved grass present.

Another plant which was very interesting to see was the Saltmarsh rush Juncus gerardii, which is one of the top-flowering rushes, and very common in this habitat. We also found a sedge - Long-bract sedge Carex extensa which has wonderful long bracts which come out at right angles from the female spikelets. We also looked for another good saltmarsh sedge, Distant sedge C. distans, where the female spikelets can be up to half the stem length distant from each other.

I must admit that it was a highlight to see Quaking grass Briza media for the first time. It certainly lived up to what I was hoping for, and I really enjoyed that sighting. It's a very delicate, particularly beautiful grass that has a real simplicity and delicate look.
The lovely Quaking grass
It was brilliant to have a look at some Agrostis, bent grass, species. We found both common Agrostis capillaris and creeping bent A. stolonifera, and discussed the other common species, both of which are found on upland sites. Bent grasses have very leggy looking flowerheads as all the individual flowers are on a stalk. This is an easy ID trick to know straight away when you are looking at an agrostis.

It was definitely a day of sedges, however. Overall we found ten sedges of the genus Carex and one of the genus Eriophorum - the cotton-grasses.
False fox-sedge C. otrubae has bright, wide yellow leaves, and a surprisingly small flowerhead for the thick looking appearance of the rest of the plant. It's mainly a coastal sedge in Scotland, although grows further inland the further south you go. It's stem is incredibly triangular, and pretty unmistakeable.
Brown sedge C. disticha has a very dense, brown flowerhead, and has mixed male and female flowers so you don't get that distinctive look of the different spikelets.
Brown sedge flowerhead
We looked at the differences between the glaucous sedges - common sedge C. nigra is grey-green all over, but with upward pointing flowers, carnation sedge C. panicea is also glaucous all over, but has drooping flowers. Glaucous sedge C. flacca has a green upperside to the leaf, glaucous underneath and bottle sedge C. rostrata has a green underside and a glaucous upperside.
Bottle sedge leaves
The tiny flea sedge C. pulicaris was great - when ripe the seeds 'jump' off the stalk when touched. You can see where it gets it's name from! The dioecious sedge C. dioica is also very subtle and has male and female plants and so the flowerheads do not share a stalk.
Dioecious sedge flowers. Two female flowers to the left and a male spikelet to the right. 
It was great to see Reed sweet grass Glyseria maxima, although probably not a very essential species to know straight off, it's very distinctive and because of it's great size it took very nice photos! I'll finish with it.

There were many other species that we found, and we also discussed other things - birds, butterflies, habitat management etc. It's so nice to be bunched together with other people that are mad keen about knowing this stuff, and it makes for a very pleasant learning environment. Ben was a brilliant teacher, patient and very, very knowledgeable. I would recommend courses run by him, and by the Central Scotland Forest Trust as it was very well organised and put together. Overall a fantastic day out, and I cannot wait to head out into the field and see what I can find!

Reed sweet grass flower, with branched bur-reed growing in the water behind. 

Tuesday, 8 July 2014


How about I update you on the bird?

For those of you new to the blog, or that missed this post, in April a young rook from the rookery close to where I live fell (or was he pushed??) out of his nest. Due to there being no way I could hitch him back up those 15m trees, with me he stayed. You can read the first account of his time with me here...

Well, he's grown quite a lot since those days and is as much a character as ever.
Messy, cat foody beak. Can't even make an effort for photos! 

He was just learning to fly when I went off to Spain and so I was fully expecting to come back and for him to be gone. He wasn't though, still hanging around, still begging to be fed! He's approximately two and a half months old now and can fly like the devil. He's clever, though is taking quite a while to learn how to feed himself absolutely.

The difficulty is that it's taken him a long time for him to recognise cat food (what we feed him) as food. He like wriggly things and would rather go for my bracelet than the enticing piece of cat food that I'm holding out for him. His absolute favourite food in the world though, is leatherjackets. These he makes little noises for, and he has recently learnt that he can search for them himself. We've struggled to teach him how to forage, as he just looks at the cat food on the lawn as though it's something of no interest whatsoever, but there was a breakthrough the other day when we were gardening! Finding leatherjackets in the soil, we fed them to Spook, and when he dropped one and promptly picked it up again, the penny dropped, that that's him sorted. So instead of dropping it into his mouth, we just started throwing the grubs at him and he started to search even when none had been found. The amount of dirt on his beak on a regular basis has now increased one thousand fold!

Perfect roost
He's still a character, but has become rather bossy. It's hard to say no to him, although when he's content he's a wonder. It's fascinating to just sit and watch him. I've seen him contentedly play with different objects for ages. I think it is often a show of basic caching, an activity which is very important to rooks. One memorable time he found a beautiful black feather. Probably one of his own, but nevertheless, for him this was a stunning prize. He then proceeded, with it in his mouth, to walk over to where two old clay pipes were lying on the grass, he carefully placed the feather in between the two. However, there was something not quite right in this positioning, and he shifted it slightly, before jumping onto the other pipe to gain a better view and turning the feather over several more times before becoming content with how it was placed. He then jumped off the pipe and went for another wander, before chancing upon a piece of hard plastic. This was another prize and he carried this back to the pipes also. However, on arrival back at the pipes and on catching sight of the black feather again, he realised that the feather still wasn't right and, dropping the plastic without a second thought (obviously it didn't even compare to the feather!) he then continued to adjust the position of the feather, even at one point having it sticking up vertically into the air!

He still chatters to himself, but not so much any more, and one huge step for both him and us, is that he socialises with other rooks now as well. For most of the day, he'll be out in the fields with another group of rooks. It's hard to know whether he's on the outskirts or whether he's actually part of it, but it's great to see. He always did know he was a rook, you see, even from a very young age. Nothing about any other bird (other than a sparrowhawk or a buzzard, or, presumably, any other bird of prey - these would cause him to hide immediately) would interest him, but let him see a corvid, or in particular, another rook, and that gleam in his eye just became gleamier and you could see how interested he was in these others.

He goes pretty far from home, I've seen him at least a kilometre from here, which is pretty cool, and as I've recently been told that the old saying 'as the crow flies' should actually be 'as the rook flies' then maybe he's just living up to that!

That's not food...!
One of the best things is when he flies next to you, when you can feel the swoosh from his wings and hear the air being diverted. And, he loves it. Again, emotions on an animal? But we only have human words to describe what he's feeling. I can tell when he's angry or upset with me (he does NOT like being held, even if it's to remove something caught on his feet) and I can tell when he's taking pleasure in something. And flight is definitely that something. Well, wouldn't you? When he takes off from one perch, and without flapping his wings once, swoops to the ground and then uses the air to lift him back up to the same height he started on to perch on a new perch - you can tell even he's impressed with his abilities then. He likes to wash in warm weather, and preens preens preens. His feathers, ever beautiful, have a greeny/purple sheen and are absolutely stunning.

 Overall I'm/we're just at the last hurdle. Helping him to become self sufficient. He know how to find his own food, but has gotten lazy, I think, due to the ease with which we feed him. Why would he bother to worry about feeding himself all day when all he needs to do is wait for one of us to return home and then he'll get a lovely full belly with no energy wasted. But, this last step has to be undertaken. It's handy that there are work men around all the time just now, which he doesn't like. So, all day he's hanging out with the other rooks, spending time with them. Maybe one day the penny will drop and he'll realise that he can get enough food to survive, or maybe he'll fall in love and find a mate and she'll start to demand more attention. Who knows, but it's been a real treat to work with him, this fascinating bird.
Hey, I can perch!

Grass Talks

It is really amazing when you sit in long grass. Although it always looks pretty, it just takes being on the same level with the plants to see the whole diversity of life. Spiders crawl, a whole spectrum of colours on show on their tiny bodies. The flies buzz from plant to plant, stopping to wash their massive compound eyes now and again. There are aphids, midges, bees – many bees. Big bees, small bees, all equally hurried in their movements as they rush from flower to flower, filling up on nectar and pollen before moving onto the next.

The leaf litter is extremely thick through years and years of undisturbed death of green things. It’s not like someone is coming along and mowing the grass every autumn – all these long stalks, some almost up to my hip, die where they grew, creating a spongy under layer that makes this sitting-in-the-grass activity all the more pleasant.

There are slugs, cuckoo spit, tiny springtails and hopping things. Things I don’t have names for! But all seem to be equally important, equally desired by this habitat. The variety of bird song that’s floating through the air pays testament to that thought, as the richness of life in the grass, in the trees, is what sustains those other animals too. It’s a jungle down here, and maybe that plays a part in what makes it so inspiring being down here. It’s beyond our ken, our normal curiosity. It’s fascinating and these things see me, the grass watcher, not as a threat, but as something completely uninteresting. That’s pretty nice too.  

Next time you find yourself in long grass, or any grass at all, I recommend you sit down, lie down and just relax and let the other world drift over you for a while. It’s lovely down there, and from our 6ft pedestals we can’t always realise that, so just take a moment, climb down and breathe in the good air.

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Oh man

This is the longest break in writing I've had since I started up this blog, more than two years ago (!). And why? (I hear you cry). It's because of this new job. I am, literally, shattered. Been up and down about it, it's the most difficult thing I have ever done, no doubt about that...but why? It's only surveying woodland. Hah, yeah, and these past few days I've had a glimpse that that is what it's about and that it shouldn't be giving me headaches and exhausting me. It's a learning curve, but by gum, what a curve it's been! And still is...

So forgive my silence for a little longer. I'm starting to write more on paper again though, and I'm becoming inspired by the world around me again. Both those things show me that there is light at the end of this tunnel. Why now am I writing this instead of catching up on sleep? I don't know. One of those moments, eh?! But I shall sleep, and learn, and survey and sleep some more, until one day I turn around and go I'm getting it! ah, I can dream! But let me share with you one thing. I read this in Paolo Coelho's Manual of the Warrier of Light and it's been a help:

The warrier of light continues despite his lack of faith. 
He goes forward and, in the end, faith returns.   

There's a little bit in the middle about putting faith in god, but seeing as I dinnae do that I've just picked the bit of the message that's relevant for me and used it to give me courage to keep going and keep working away at this survey. 

I'll write again soon, now that the forest man has gone on a big trek any thoughts that would previously be directed his way will be sent yours. When I'm less tired! 

Night all, and happy July!