Friday, 10 May 2013

Durham Flower Show

Two of our annual Spring highlights involve plants within the University's extensive mature deciduous woodlands. If your routes around the Mountjoy site never take you up 'Cardiac Hill' now is a good time to make a point of walking the path at the eastern end of the Arthur Holmes building and enjoying the first of the floral spectacles - the carpet of wood anemones. They are at their best right now.

Wood Anemones in Little High Wood (Allan Watson)

It is worth a close look at the individual flowers. Although the overall impression is of white, they are actually subtly variable and may show pinkish, lilac or blue, and often have a darker tint to the back.

There are already hints to be seen, throughout Little and Great High Wood, of the second great floral highlight. The bluebells are coming on nicely.

Monday, 29 April 2013

Spring …. at last

After an apparently endless winter, spring is finally upon us and the natural world is frantically trying to catch up after a delayed start to the year. The first spring flowers are blooming in the Durham woodlands (Wood Anenome in particular is in full flower right now), and in the last two weeks many migratory birds have flooded back into the country from their warmer wintering grounds.

Osprey migrating across the Mediterranean (Photo: Steve Willis)

Now is the time for unusual sightings of migratory birds around the university, and a prime time to ditch the car and walk in to work to experience spring in full flow. On my walk to work on Friday I saw an Osprey circle over the River Wear at Maiden Castle, before drifting off over Gilesgate and heading north. This morning, in the same area, I spotted a migratory Wheatear, a much smaller migrant that travels from its wintering grounds in Africa back to the uplands of the UK to breed. Add to this the woodlands that are full of newly-arrived warblers that spent the winter in the Mediterranean, and the Swallows and House Martins buzzing overhead, having just got back from Africa, and you really do get a sense that spring is here at last.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Mass Migration

Think of mass migration and the movement of a million Wildebeest across the Serengeti will probably come to mind. However, an equally impressive migration of around 600,000 birds has been taking place into the UK, and particularly over Durham, during the last few days.  

Wildebeest in East Africa - probably the best known mass migration event (Photo: Steve Willis)
Having said that, it probably passed most people by – largely because it is occurring at night, and a few hundred feet above our heads. Over the last couple of foggy nights there has been a large migration of Redwings, a thrush species, from their breeding grounds in the Arctic to the UK . They leave the Arctic in autumn to spend their winter in warmer climates. The huge migration over Durham during the last couple of evenings has probably been prompted by the very cold arctic weather that is currently heading our way from the north. These birds will have crossed the North Sea after leaving mainland Europe and arrived on a broad front along the east coast  of the UK.

If you can find a quiet area outside, away from traffic, and listen for 5-10 minutes one evening, you will have a good chance of hearing their characteristic, thin ‘tseep’ call as they pass overhead.

This amazing natural phenomenon happens every year at about this time but goes largely undetected.


From now onwards it is worth looking out for Redwing (a small thrush with a white eye-stripe and an orange-red patch under it’s wing - see above) foraging on the ground under trees in Great and Little High Wood and through the Botanical Gardens.

Friday, 21 September 2012

Nocturnal activity

Badgers are relatively common, though seldom seen, around the university. At this time of year you are very unlikely to see a badger in daylight but they are still very active at night. In September and October they spend more of their time than usual collecting bedding to take down into their setts, in preparation for winter. They also increase their feeding rates to put on sufficient fat to survive the winter.

The photo above was taken on an infra-red, motion triggered camera that is being used to monitor wildlife around the Durham campus.

Thursday, 13 September 2012

First and last of the summer butterflies?

After an especially dreary summer for butterflies across the university estate, the better weather of the last couple of weeks produced a flurry of last minute activity, albeit with species occurring in very low numbers compared to most years. The wet summer has caused large population declines in the commoner butterflies such as Peacock and Small Tortoiseshell (below), which can usually be seen in good numbers on Buddleia plants around the botanic gardens.

Small Tortoiseshell (Photo: Steve Willis)
Late flying second and third brood butterflies started to emerge in late August and include recently emerged Comma, Speckled Wood (below) and Peacock; the former two only having colonised Durham from further south in recent decades in response to changing climate.

Speckled Wood (Photo: Steve Willis)

Monday, 28 May 2012

Uncommon Waterside Warblers

Two of the least common birds around the university, both of which often have an affinity for water, are the sedge warbler and the grasshopper warbler. The grasshopper warbler is named after its insect-like song. Click on play in the link below to hear this unusual song:

It has been allocated a red-list conservation status in the UK, indicating a species of high conservation concern due to a long-term population decline. Listen for the reeling song of the grasshopper warbler in thick vegetation along the Durham riverbanks and in dense hedgerows.

Sedge Warbler (Photo: Steve Willis)

The sedge warbler is a very rare breeder on the university estate, with the small reedbed near the Mountjoy buildings being the only site to regularly hold a breeding pair. Although rarely seen, its grating and scratchy warble usually gives away its presence:

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

St Mark's Fly

Walk almost anywhere where there is rough grassland on the University estate right now and you will see the air full of jet black flies with long dangling legs. This is the St Mark's fly, so called because it is supposed to appear on St Mark's day (April 25th).  Take this with a pinch of salt however.  This year, the long cold Spring seems to have held them back.  

The dangling leg flight is thought to be all about finding a mate. This settled fly is a male - they have larger eyes that meet together on top of the head. 

Phil Gates' blog  - Beyond the Human Eye (click here) has some excellent close up shots and more information.

Monday, 21 May 2012

Tawny Owl Treat

Participants on today's lunchtime biodiversity programme guided walk led by Allan Watson -  'Birdsong for Beginners' were treated to this fine sight from the footpath into Great High Wood.

Photo: Allan Watson

Tawny Owls are the most nocturnal of the three species of owl recorded on the University estate. Of the other two, Barn Owls are fairly regularly seen in daylight towards the end of the day and Little Owls are almost completely daytime birds.  To see a tawny owl right out in the open in full view and in broad daylight is relatively unusual.  They almost always hunt between dusk and dawn but they are recorded hunting in the open during daylight when they have young in the nest - as is the case now. (For a photo of a young tawny taken in the botanic garden, click here)

'Tu-whit, tu-who' as Shakespeare wrote in Loves Labour's Lost.  Except that William got it famously wrong. Both male and female make the typical 'hu....huhuhuhoo' call and both make a separate contact call, a sharp 'kee-wick' but neither does one straight after the other.  You might get close to the bard's description if you happen to catch a 'kee-wick' from one bird followed by a 'hoo-hoo' from the other.

However, this one did not seem to realise that we were on an aural exploration and stayed resolutely silent.

Friday, 18 May 2012

Reed-bed Birds

With Spring well and truly underway, now is the best time for seeing or hearing many of the bird species around the university. Two species currently singing from the small Reedbed by the Mountjoy buildings are the appropriately named Reed Bunting and Sedge Warbler. Several pairs of Reed Bunting, an uncommon local breeding species, have territories around the Mountjoy fields - some nesting in the scattered patches of bramble and willowherb. The unmanaged rough grassland here is a vital habitat for these breeding pairs.

Male Reed Butning. Mountjoy Reedbed

The male Reed Bunting (above) is easily identified by its black head and white moustache. One can often be heard singing its simple repeated song from the top of reeds in the reedbed. The song has been likened to a child learnng to count, but continually forgetting where it has got to and having to start again ('one ... one, two, ... one, two three, ... one, two ...').

Female Reed Bunting/ Mountjoy Reedbed

The female Reed Bunting (above) is more cryptic, and well camouflaged, looking like a well-marked sparrow, and it usually requires sharp eyes to spot her moving through the lower level vegetation.

Friday, 11 May 2012

A Wealth of Warblers

The university estate supports a high diversity of breeding birds, including a wide range of migratory warbler species. Now is the ideal time of the year to look for these often elusive birds, as they become more obvious when setting up a breeding territory and singing.

Seven species of warblers breed on the university estate in most years, including Willow Warbler, Chiff-chaff, Blackcap, Garden Warbler, Whitethroat, Sedge Warbler and Grasshopper Warbler. Most of these species are now back from their wintering grounds and are singing around the university grounds.

Whitethroat - doing a good job of hiding its white throat.
Photo: Phil Gates

Blackcaps and Chiff-chaffs are very common around Durham this year. There aren't many sections of the University woodlands in which you cannot currently hear the rhythmical song of the chiff-chaff (

Chiffchaff. Photo: Allan Watson

Similarly, most bushy areas and woodland margins have the warbling song of a male black-cap emanating from them at present (

Blackcap. Photo: Steve Willis

The populations of these two species, both of which migrate relatively short distances for warblers (most of our birds probably spent the winter in Spain or North Africa), have increased considerably across the whole of the UK in recent years.

Marsh Marigold

If you take a stroll up to Mountjoy you will see these cheerful plants around the edges of the pond. They have been in flower for well over a month now and provide early sources of nectar for bees.

Its Latin name, Caltha, is derived from the Greek for ‘goblet’, giving it another common name ‘Kingcup’.

This commonly found plant is a member of the buttercup family and can be successfully grown in the garden in damp spots or, like these ones, on the edges of ponds.

(Text and photo: Steve Ansdell)

King Alfred's Cakes

There is a dazzling array of different fungi to be found around the estate as the photo above shows. King Alfred’s Cakes (Daldinia concentrica) is commonly found on the dead wood of ash as this specimen was. It was photographed at the edge of Blaid’s Wood, just past the sewerage works at the bottom of Hollingside Lane.

The name comes from the legend that King Alfred, who was hiding from the Danes, once burnt some cakes by failing to take them out of the oven. The fungal growths, which look as if they have been burned, are a reminder of his poor cooking skills!

For the bushcraft fans amongst us – the dried inner flesh of the fungus can easily be lit, a bit like a barbeque briquette, and then laid on some dry grass or twigs and before you know it, you have a fire going.

Please don’t try this in the University woodland though!

(Text and Photograph by Steve Ansdell)

Know your onions … and cabbages

The damper areas of the University woods are currently ablaze with the white flowers of the Wild Garlic, the leaves from which are great in salads and soups (pick a few of the fresh green leaves but leave the bulbs in the ground), having a similar but milder flavour to domestic garlic bulbs. The link below links to some recipe suggestions:

A rarer form of the onion family, and one without any culinary appeal is the Few-flowered Leek (below), which has become naturalised in only a few places in County Durham. One such site lies close to the University Botanic gardens, though you would have to be sharp-eyed to pick it out from among the surrounding grasses once its few flowers have dropped off.

Another non-native species that is very rare in County Durham but which occurs around Van Mildert college pond is the Skunk Cabbage. Despite its name, it isn’t related to cabbages at all. In fact it is a type of Arum lily. As its name suggest, it is rather smelly and not remotely edible. The skunk-like odour it's flowers give off is designed to attract flies and beetles to pollinate the flowers.

Thursday, 10 May 2012

Bats about St Cuthbert's

'Can you come and get this bat out of our lightshade please?'  A strange but true start to a working day last week because this fully grown adult female pipistrelle bat did indeed manage to get itself trapped inside a light shade in one of St Cuthbert's College accommodation blocks.  

The most likely theory is that the bat got into the loft space above the light fitting, crawled through the small gap that the electricity cables pass through and ended up inside the shade unable to find its way out again.  The fully enclosed shade contained two light bulbs, permanently on, and so the bat was very hot, very dehydrated and emaciated.  Luckily, the University's energy saving policy meant that lower power energy efficient bulbs were fitted.  Had they been traditional light bulbs the bat would have been unlikely to survive the extra heat generated. So, our energy saving policy is good for bats as well as for the environment and the University bank balance.   After a few days in captivity, fed on a luxury diet of mealworms, the bat had recovered sufficiently to be released successfully.

Given that St Cuthbert is credited with introducing the first ever bird protection laws in the world when living the hermit's life on the Farne Islands in the late 600s, the great man would surely have been delighted to have a bat in his college.

Durham University estate and its buildings provide roost sites and feeding habitat for at least 6 of the 11 species of bat recorded in County Durham and as such we make a very significant contribution to the conservation and well-being of this declining and misunderstood group of animals.

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Confusing woodland warblers

Photo by Phil Gates
A willow warbler, a migrant that spends the winter in Sub-Saharan Africa, was also noted for the first time this year on Saturday, singing by the car park of the Botanical Gardens. The willow warbler’s close relative the chiff-chaff has been heard singing around Durham for the last few weeks now. The two species, which are difficult to separate by eye, can be easily told apart by their very different songs. Click on the links below to listen to their song (click the play buttons):

Don’t forget to record sightings of these or any other species on the Greenspace Biodiversity link:

Spring has sprung

photo by Phil Gates
 One swallow does not a summer make – or so the saying goes. But if two swallows do, then we’re in luck as the first two swallows were sighted around the Mountjoy Site on Saturday morning.

The two birds, one male and one female were seen flying around the top of the site. Males can easily be told from females by their much longer tails. These two birds could have spent last winter as far south as Cape Town in South Africa before travelling back to Durham.

Friday, 13 April 2012

Spring Woodland Wildflowers

Any of the University's extensive mature woodland areas are a pleasure to visit in Spring. Not only does birdsong fill the air but the common spring flowers are showing their heads and brightening up the lengthening days.  Earliest out is the wood anemone.

Then the bluebells follow.

Perhaps the best bluebell show of all is in Great High Wood, which has a good footpath network readily accessible from the Mountjoy site (follow the track that angles off the main site road just past the smaller of the car parks adjacent to Engineering) or cut into the woods from Hollingside Lane just past the entrance to the Botanic Garden.

It is also well worth stopping to take a close look at the beautiful smaller white flowers of the wood sorrel.

Thursday, 5 April 2012


A pilot study of Swift nesting boxes has begun at two University colleges, Grey and Josephine Butler, this month. This joint project between Durham University, Durham Biodiversity Action Partnership and Durham Bird Club will monitor the boxes in the hope that migrating birds will breed this summer. Swifts arrive from Africa and look for nesting sites. Most make their home in roof spaces, entering through gaps in tiles or under the eaves. Others nest in the gaps in crumbling brickwork. However, they are struggling to find suitable homes in towns and cities due to the British public's obsession with home improvement.

Swifts are one of the most graceful and speedy summer visitors to Britain. They are such good fliers, they even sleep on the wing. Their wings are scythe-shaped, while their tails are forked.  They eat flying insects and airborne spiders. Unlike swallows, they never perch on wires.

We are very grateful to construction company Laing O'Rourke for assistance in erecting the boxes.

Thursday, 29 March 2012

Long-Tailed Tits

These beautiful little birds can be seen all around the estate, including college grounds. They nest in woods and hedgerows where they build a luxury home for themselves and their offspring. They line the nest with up to 2,000 feathers and will fly between 600 - 700 miles searching for the best materials to camouflage it.

When the breeding season is over, they form small, sociable flocks of about ten birds, consisting of adults and their offspring. They search for food together and roost communally, huddling together for warmth.

Monday, 18 July 2011

The Southern Hawker

Our many ponds and lakes host a good range of dragonflies and damselflies. The most impressive are the large 'hawkers'. These are beginning to be regularly seen now and are worth watching for. They will often be seen away from the ponds, flying strongly over grassland areas and hunting along the woodland edges. Good areas to look include the botanic gardens, the pond and fields to the east of the Mountjoy buildings and the field below the reservoir (on the left as you go up the hill towards Mountjoy). Sightings include the impressive Emperor and this beauty, the Southern Hawker. (click on photo to enlarge.)

Sunday, 17 July 2011

Insects on a Mountjoy stroll

If you are based on the Science Site, a 30 minute lunchtime stroll around the sloping field that stretches from the Mountjoy reservoir to the road that leads up to Mountjoy and Biological Sciences is well worth the effort.  Right now, there is a wonderful blaze of colour from the rosebay willow herb.

On the way round, take a little time to stand and stare as the insect life is very active at the moment, especially if you pick a warm still day. Butterflies readily seen include the ringlet (upper surface and underwing shown below)

the meadow brown

and this skipper

The burnet moths are hatching out too.  Unusually, this beautiful moth is a day flier (and one of the most poisonous moths in Britain).

If you search carefully you might find the elegant empty cocoon spun by the burnet caterpillar on a flimsy grass stem.

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Leaf hoppers

On the far south side of the University estate, beyond the Botanic Garden and bordering agricultural land leased to Houghall College, is a wonderful area of sheltered rough grassland that blooms with marsh orchids in Spring before the grasses and taller herbs take over about now. Today the area was absolutely alive with thousands upon thousands of this beautiful little insect - the Green Leafhopper Cicadella viridis. As you walk through the grass they leap and bound in front of you propelled by a flick of the hind legs.

The photograph is of a female. Males have darker blue or purple coloured wings.

Leafhoppers make a living by tapping into the sap in grasses.

Insect Activity

Insects are so numerous and varied that it can seem daunting to even begin to get to grips with them. Yet, there are some fascinating insects right under our University noses and their activity is hotting up with the recent warmer weather. For example, walk any of the paths around and over the rough grasslands to the east of the Science Site and Mountjoy at the moment and these two insects should be easy to find and recognise.

The first is the Scorpion fly. An impressive insect, about a couple of centimetres long, it gets its name because the abdomen of the male curls up at the end rather like a scorpion's tail. Worry not, the upturned end isn't a sting at all but the male reproductive organ. The female’s abdomen is more or less straight by comparison. The second example is a soldier beetle. Beetles are easy to recognise from other types of insect in that most have a pair of hard wing covers that meet in a straight line down the centre of the back.

The photograph below shows how the black wing covers open to reveal the folded up wings which the beetle expands for flight.

Monday, 14 June 2010


The large pond behind Mountjoy 4 hosts at least three different species of damselfly, that begin to emerge in large numbers in early June. This is the large red damselfly, one of the commonest species that will breed in small garden ponds.
Damselflies are smaller, more delicate relatives of dragonflies. Most species spend a year as aquatic nymphs before they emerge for their brief lives as adults.
Males and females often have different colour patterns. This is a male common bluetail.
During mating the male grabs the female just behind her head with the tip of his tail and they fly around in tandem before settling. She then bends her tail forward and grasps the back of his thorax, so they assume this 'mating wheel' configuration. This species is the common coenagrion.
 After mating they remain in tandem, while the female lands and dips the tip of her tail in the water, laying eggs on waterweeds or floating debris in shallow water.

Sometimes prime egg-laying sites can be in short supply. Here five pairs of damselflies are egg-laying at the same location, using a floating dead reed as a landing platform.

Monday, 17 May 2010

Speckled Wood Butterfly

Speckled wood butterflies are relatively new arrivals in North East England, first appearing in Durham city three years ago. The species has been gradually advancing northwards for decades - perhaps in response to climate change. There are four known colonies on the university estate - in the Botanic Garden, along the footpath on the east side of John Snow House (sunlit footpaths are a favourite haunt) on the Science Site, on the east side of the hedgerow opposite the Botanic Garden car park entrance and at the southern end of the North American arboretum, on the southern edge of the university estate. Speckled wood butterflies thrive in woodland glades, where the caterpillars feed on common grasses like cock's foot and Yorkshire fog. There are two broods each year and in a good summer occasionally three, so look out for this attractive butterfly in spring, summer and autumn.

Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Red Kite

Not too many years ago people would have assumed that you were mistaken if you said that you had seen a red kite over the Botanic Gardens. Not so any more, as a re-introduction programme carried out between 2004 and 2006 in the Derwent Valley just to the north of Durham, released a total of 94 birds in the project known as Northern Kites. Breeding success (the first for 170 years in the NE region) has led to birds expanding out from the Derwent Valley base and therefore we can probably assume that sightings in the skies above the University estate will continue to increase. (A release scheme at the Harewood Estate in North Yorkshire has also produced birds seen in the North East)

Last weekend Steve Ansdell was the lucky chap who watched a red kite circling high in the skies above the Botanic Gardens on two successive evenings. They are truly majestic in flight and even at a distance the profile is unlike anything else that you are likely to see. The long wings and forked tail are distinctive.

If you do see a red kite it is worth trying to get onto them with binoculars as every released bird and most of the young birds have been given a unique combination of coloured and numbered wing tags to monitor progress. The details can be found here.

Finally, if this post has whetted your appetite, there are a number of places in the Derwent valley where you will have a really good chance of seeing a red kite. There is a guide to the best viewing points here.

(Thanks to Phil Gates for the use of his library photos)