Wednesday 30 September 2015

Bumbling Through the Bog

Vervain, Verbena officiaonalis

On our way down to the beach last week I noticed an interesting small patch of ground to the left of the steps, about half way down, which looks ripe for a little investigation. I thought we’d spend an hour or so probing about there before lunch and then go snorkelling. It’s pretty boggy here so I expect there is a spring bubbling up from the cliff face nearby. Not a lot in flower at the moment but this one has a name you’ll probably recognise, Vervain or possibly Verbena from its scientific name Verbena officiaonalis. It’s been used in medicine since time immemorial as a sort of cure-all, even being used to staunch Christ’s wounds when he was pulled down from the cross. Even though we know that it contains compounds likely to have pharmaceutical properties there seem to have been no human studies regarding its actual efficacy which I find somewhat surprising.

How to identify Sedges, Rushes and Grasses

You’ll have to watch your step here, it really is rather wet. The trick is to use the clumps of reeds as stepping stones. I’ve flipped a few rocks but disappointingly no reptiles or amphibians have emerged as yet. Reed incidentally is rather a fuzzy term for tall, grassy plants found in wetlands and they all look superficially similar. To work out whether the plant you are looking at is actually a rush (Junaceae family), a sedge (Cyperaceae) or a grass (Poaceae) there is a rhyme about the stems of these plants that may well bring back memories of student days for the older botanists among you: Sedges have edges, Rushes are round, Grasses are hollow and have nodes to the ground. Simple but effective: now we can all sound like professional wetland botanists.

Leaf-cutter Bee, Megachile sp.

I do believe that there’s a blackberry bush in flower over there, let’s take a closer look. The petals are almost exactly the same hue as the vervain. Have you noticed that certain flower colours predominate at certain times of the year? I see that it’s being visited by a Leaf-cutter bee, so called because they neatly snip off a portion of plant leaf and use it to line their nests. They make a burrow in the ground or find a suitable cavity, line the bottom with leaf snippets, lay a single egg, provision it with pollen (which they carry in sacs under their abdomens rather than on their hind legs like most bees), put a cap on it and then repeat the process until they have a nursery of little cells throughout the burrow. The larvae hatch, eat the food, moult a few times, pupate and then emerge as adults.
Hooded Crow, Corvus cornix

Talking of eating food I think that it’s time to revert to the terrace for lunch and a bit more bird watching. Last week we were looking at the flocking behaviour of feral pigeons but today I thought we’d take a closer look at the Hooded Crows. Like all of the corvid family they are highly intelligent birds and it seems to me that they get bored easily and, if they have nothing better to do, they play. A couple of days ago I saw one trying to fly in formation with the pigeons like Concorde among the Red Arrows (the pigeons didn’t take a blind bit of notice). Today I see that they’re playing aerobatics: launching themselves from the telegraph wire, catching the updraft from the cliffs, allowing themselves to be blown gently backwards and attempting to land on the telegraph pole whilst in reverse as it were. Whether they are actually playing depends upon your definition of play of course but flight play, such as this, is one of seven documented play types observed in crows. [1] An excellent lunch as usual so I suggest a short rest for digestion purposes and then we’ll continue our undersea explorations.

Ornate Wrasse, Thalassoma pavo

Now this is a common colourful fish that you’ll see a lot of as we snorkel about. These are Ornate Wrasse and you may be forgiven for thinking that they are two different fish as the male is much bigger and has one blue band and the smaller female has five blue bands and a black saddle. Not only are they beautiful, inquisitive and friendly (start flipping rocks underwater and they’ll be your friend for life, following you around to see what tit-bits you disturb) but, like many fish, they develop in a curious way. When the eggs hatch after spawning they are all female, not a male to be seen. Like their mothers before them they grow to maturity, produce eggs and spawn and then, having fulfilled their female function they change sex and become males ready to fertilise the spawn of other females. So they get to see both sides of life as it were. Let’s all split up and see what else we can find. There are some sea caves along the cliff line that usually throw up something interesting.
Happy hunting.

See all the pictures including insets in detail on Flickr

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  1. Lovely pictures...many wrasse are hermaphrodite, if my memory isn't playing tricks on me. Hooded crows, strange in the UK we only have them in the North, but they are present where you are, way further south!

  2. "Have you noticed that certain flower colours predominate at certain times of the year?"

    Oddly enough, that was my first statistical experiment in my Ecology grad. student days - looking also at woodland vs field flowers as well. Happy memories...

  3. Thanks for your comments. Did you come to any conclusions regarding seasonal flower colours John?


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