Wood You Believe It?

I’ve gone a bit quiet on both blogs recently, and not just because I’ve retreated to lick my post-election wounds. It’s the start of another field season, and I’ve been busily helping some of our MSc students get started with their projects as well as launching into another phase of data collection for my PhD. With the aid of two of the aforementioned students (who, I am grateful to say, are doing the lion’s share of the work!) we’ve been setting up three pairs of insect traps in each of a number of different woods in and around Reading. All the sites are within 15km of the town centre but incorporate a variety of wood sizes, habitat structures, and situations; from plantation to copse, beech to oak wood, and urban (like McIlroy Park, below) to rural.

McIlroy park, Reading, at sunrise.
McIlroy park, Reading, at sunrise.

In each pair of traps, we are setting one pitfall — very simply, a plastic cup buried in the ground to catch any invertebrates that happen to stumble in — and a flight intercept trap, pegged to the ground, which will catch anything that happens to fly through the trap door. In other words, we have one trap to catch walking creatures and one to catch those on the wing, but both set in the same place for a direct comparison.

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Cow Parsley Fever

It’s an enormously exciting time to be in Britain.

No, I’m not talking about the general election campaign. It’s cow parsley season! Beautiful, delicate sprays of cow parsley flowers are opening across the countryside, in any suitable patch of rough vegetation lucky enough to be un-tidied, un-sprayed, and un-crowded by other plants. No less an authority than Richard Mabey, writing in his landmark work Flora Britannica, describes cow parsley as ‘arguably the most important spring landscape flower’. It certainly vies with hawthorn as the crowning glory of the month of May.

Of course, I’m particularly biased towards cow parsley after two years spent researching the community of beetles which use it as a nectar resource (alongside its brasher, stinkier, later blooming cousin hogweed), focusing on the potential suitability of umbellifer patches as sampling platforms. I can’t really tell you much about my results yet – I still have many specimens to identify before I even have a complete data set to analyse! – but I’m looking forward to seeing what patterns emerge after many hours spent staring at flower-heads, collecting pot in one hand and click-counter in the other. Preliminary information is available on this conference poster from last year.

This year, I’m moving on to other fieldwork, but I have a feeling I’m not done with umbellifers. I continue to feel their magnetic pull: after all what’s not to like about plants which look great, grow all over the place, and attract a remarkable variety of insects? Spend a relaxing half hour this spring gazing at the cow parsley, and you never know what you might find.

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The Windy Month

At least, I think that’s what March is often called? March 2015 has certainly rushed out on a howling gale that’s been bending treetops and playing havoc with stacks of building material on the University of Reading construction site campus. To see how true to life the moniker ‘windy month’ is, I looked up the averages for the nearest official Met Office recording station. At least at RAF Benson, March is in fact only as windy as February, putting it joint second after January. This, of course, only refers to the monthly mean windspeed – a relatively modest 9.5mph sustained.

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