Seen in Otley


EUROPEAN HOLLY - 24 December 2020

Their winter-ripening red berries and glossy green leaves bring natural colour into our homes at Christmas, and also into our woods, where their shade tolerance means they thrive at shrub level. The berries are an important food source for birds and mice, with frosts softening them up and apparently making them palatable (but don’t put them where your pets or children might be tempted!). Dense holly bushes provide good shelter for birds and a relatively safe location for their nests. The leaves are great when you’re starting a fire, even when fresh, and it’s worth noting that those high up on bushes lack the distinctive defensive prickles of leaves lower down. The deep dry leaf litter is attractive to hedgehogs looking for somewhere to hibernate. World-wide there are about 480 different species of holly, and Christians and pagans alike have found symbolism in their features. Merry Christmas.

LITTLE EGRET - 22 December 2020

These small white herons still seem quite exotic to me – more a bird of the Nile (or at least the Dordogne) than the Wharfe. Many UK egrets migrate south for the winter, which makes a December sighting seem even more special. These are an adaptable breed that have been in Britain since the eighties, breeding since the nineties. Mind you, if you go to the RSPB’s reserves in the Aire valley you can now get the full set: Little, Great White and Cattle Egrets. The pure white colour of the Little Egret makes them easy to spot, and I like the way their yellow feet contrast with their black legs. During the breeding season they also have long plumes on their heads and necks. The Wildlife Trusts website claims these feathers “were once more valuable than gold and were smuggled into Europe during the 19th century. As a result, little egret populations plummeted until laws were put in place to protect them.” Little Egrets eat a wide variety of prey (eg fish, amphibians, crustaceans, insects, worms), and use a wide variety of methods to catch them - ambushing, chasing, stalking, scavenging. They are also good at capitalising on their prey being disturbed by other creatures.

Photo by Pixabay

SHIELD LICHEN - 21 December 2020

Lichens are a symbiosis, a composite organism emerging from algae or cyanobacteria living among the filaments of fungi. Algae or cyanobacteria benefit by being protected from the environment by the filaments of the fungi, which also gather moisture and nutrients from the environment. The fungi benefit from the carbohydrates produced by the algae or cyanobacteria. Shield lichen are what we call a foliose lichen, there are two other types called crustose and fruticose. Foliose lichens are characterised by their flattened leafy shape, many of them like the Shield lichen have many layers. They are one of our most visible lichens in Otley, as they are fairly resistant to pollution and so are common in towns and cities. They are about 5mm wide and grow on branches, twigs and tree trunks.

By River Six

VELVET SHANK - 17 December 2020

Fairly common around Otley, especially down by the river this year, it is most commonly found on Ash trees, but can also be found on other trees. The Velvet Shank has a good resistance to frosts so can often be found throughout the winter months, for this reason it is often the last mushroom standing! This fact helps identify the mushroom as it may be the only fungus around. The cap can be between 2-8cm in diameter and can be sticky and shiny with a honey yellow to orange colour, with curved stems which can be yellow to brown in colour. Overall, they are approximately 3-8 cm in height. The Shank's flesh is thin and whitish and doesn’t have any odour. The cap is edible after washing off the slightly sticky mucous that often covers it, the slightly woody stems should be discarded. Warning: Only eat fungus if you are 100% sure of the identification.

By River Six


Although most Europeans hate the presence of moss in their well-manicured borders and lawns, moss is revered in Japan, which is home to some 2,500 varieties! One of our most common variety is Rough-stalked Feather Moss, also known as Ordinary Moss and can be found growing in lawns and woodlands. Right now as the winter days are giving us grey and wet, this moss looks magical, draping the trees in the woods and across the tops of dry stone walls in a soft green blanket. Moss provides important shelter for many minibeasts, so why not give up trying to get rid of it out of your garden because the truth is, it likes to grow where grass and other plants just don’t.

By River Six

GOLDENEYE - 14 December 2020

I saw these diving ducks at Knotford Nook, through the incongruous high-security fence. The males are quite easy to identify, not so much for their eye colour as the white cheek patch on their very dark green heads. They’re with us for the winter from northern Europe, which means we miss the unusual courtship displays where they bend backwards so that their head touches their tail, whilst emitting a loud, double-whistle sound that can be heard up to a kilometre away. We also don’t get to see their aggressive assertion of territory, or their occasional brood parasitism ie tricking other Goldeneye into raising their young (like the Cuckoo).

Photo by Pixabay

KING ALFREDS CAKES - 3 December 2020

We don’t know for certain that the story of the king letting the peasant woman’s cakes burn is true, but he was a really interesting character, and the comparison with the roundish, black fruiting bodies of this fungus is apt. In bushcraft we use King Alfred’s Cakes as tinder – they catch a spark easily and will burn gently for a long time – a practice in use since Stone Age times, when we think they will have used the fungus to transport fire from one place to another. This all explains other names such as Coal Fungus and Carbon Balls, though Cramp Balls reflects the old belief that carrying them would cure attacks of cramp. They feed on dead and decaying wood, particularly Ash, Beech and Birch, and will grow on burnt wood, helping the landscape to recover after a wildfire. The matt, pinkish brown ones in River’s second photo are young ones.

Photos by River Six

TREECREEPER - 1 December 2020

We don’t have many birds with curved bills, and I’m struggling to think of another small one. You can see them spiralling up and round the tree trunks at Gallows Hill and on the Chevin, surprisingly confident in their unobtrusive mousiness, quietly searching for invertebrates such as insects and spiders. Observed closely their movement can be defined as a series of hops, using their long toes, strongly-curved claws and stiff tail. Whilst their mottled-brown backs blend in well with the tree bark, their chests are often an intense, clean white. Eschewing the usual locations, Treecreepers make their nests behind a loose flap of bark.

Photo by Unsplash

TIGER WORM - 27 November 2020

You can buy these earthworms, because they are particularly good at rapidly processing organic waste into nutrient-rich compost, but the ones that turned up in our bin got there under their own steam. They have several alternative names such as Brandling Worm, Red Wiggler Worm, Manure Worm and Trout Worm, but the stripes make it a bit of a no-brainer for me. They have huge appetites, and live in rotting vegetation or manure but rarely soil. Tiger Worms are used in the processing of industrial organic waste too, and are currently being tested for use in flushless toilets in India. When threatened these worms emit a pungent liquid as a deterrent.

Photo by Neil Griffin

SCOTS PINE -25 November 2020

Pine trees can leave me a bit cold – I’m thinking of David Bellamy’s “arboreal slums” – lines of monotonous ever-greens in dark plantations that support relatively little wildlife. But we don’t have too many of these around Otley, and we do have some great examples of my favourite pine, with their twisting, serpentine branches and distinctive reddish bark. The Scots Pine in my photo is in the cemetery, and there are a few down East Busk Lane and others on the Chevin, for example. Aphids can represent a significant threat to Scots Pines, particularly through their ability to reproduce sexually and asexually at an incredibly prolific rate, so the trees have developed a cunning defence strategy. When under attack they give off a fragrance that attracts ladybirds to feed on the aphids – in fact the ladybirds’ sensitivity to this smell is akin to a shark's for blood in the water. Scots Pine pollen emissions can be so dense that they are mistaken for forest fires.

Photo by Neil Griffin

TROOPING CRUMBLE CAP - 23 November 2020

Also known as Fairy Ink Cap, they are quite common at this time of year, and fairly easy to spot as they always form dense mats over dead wood. These mushrooms are reportedly edible, but since the name Crumble Cap describes their tendency to disintegrate when touched, they make an unpractical forage. They belong to a group of mushrooms called Coprinus - which means ‘living on dung' - but unlike other members of their family, Trooping Crumble Caps are vegetarians that do not live on food already passed through an animal, feeding instead on rotting timber.

By River Six

MIXED FLOCK OF TITS - 20 November 2020

One of the great joys of Autumn for me, along with the changing colour of the leaves, are mixed flocks of tits flittering around the trees and hedges. Little birds that nested in pairs during the Spring and defended their territory, now reform large social flocks made up of Blue, Coal, Great, Marsh and Willow tits, as well as Long tail tits (that aren’t actually true tits at all, but are a separate group of birds altogether) and finally another non-tit, the Goldcrest also joins these mixed flocks. There are a number of benefits to forming these social groups, including safety in numbers; a large group of birds is much more likely to spot a predator, especially important now many of the leaves have dropped and there is less cover. Feeding in a group also gives more birds the opportunity to find a food source that one bird has already located.

By River Six Photo by Pixabay

WHITE SADDLE MUSHROOM - 19 November 2020

Looking like something has chewed it up and spat it out, the white saddle mushroom is one of those fungi that look otherworldly strange to me. The whole fruit body is actually a highly folded thin sheet, like mother nature's origami. You can spot these little oddities in the leaf litter of Beech or Oak. I am reliably informed that some of the old books described white saddle as edible, but this was likely down to poor research, as they actually cause upset stomachs if ingested and may be carcinogenic. So enjoy spotting in the woods but do not forage!

By River Six

MOORHEN - 17 November 2020

One of the world’s commonest birds, these are easy to spot down at the Gallows Hill ponds, though they come out of the water much more than their close relatives the Coots. They can even climb trees, though I don’t remember seeing one do so. They breed co-operatively, which means that older chicks help their parents raise younger siblings. The chicks look comical to me, with their messy black down, colourful heads, stubby little wings and huge, oversize feet. Apparently parents will kill their own offspring in order to whittle down a large brood or in times of food shortage, doing this by violently shaking them and pushing them under the water.

Photo by Pixabay

PIXY CUP LICHEN - 13 November 2020

Similes abound for this distinctive lichen – it is also compared with golf tees and even Shrek’s ears – but the pixie reference is reinforced by the suggestion that its rough texture is “pixie dust”. There’s loads of it on the stone wall on the right of Johnny Lane as you climb the Chevin. Lichen is fascinating stuff: actually two organisms – fungi and algae – living together in a symbiotic or mutually beneficial relationship. The algae provides food through photosynthesis, whilst the fungus provides stability and protection.

Photo by Bernard Spragg

COMMON IVY - 11 November 2020

There are two native subspecies of Ivy in the UK – one that climbs and one that spreads across the ground. There are many great examples around Otley, and at the moment the mature ones are in flower, and consequently providing valuable nectar, pollen, and then berries for insects and birds, when those things are in short supply. This morning one such plant on the north side of Leeds Road (before the roundabout) was alive with insects, and evergreen ivy provides shelter for a range of animals including small mammals such as bats. The climbers may look like they are strangling the trees they grow up, but they are harmless to them, having their own root structures, and mature plants can be self-supporting. It is a resilient plant (see my first photo!), tolerant of shade, and its ability to persist through winter has led to many cultures giving it spiritual significance. For example, in Ancient Rome it was thought a wreath of ivy prevented you from getting drunk – watch out for them down the Black Horse – and Bacchus, god of intoxication, was depicted wearing one. Ivy-covered ruins were common in the work of landscape painters of the Romantic school, such as Turner (who spent many an autumn in Otley). It is thought that such scenes represent “the ephemerality of human endeavours and the sublime power of nature”…..

Photo by Neil Griffin

MICA CAP MUSHROOMS - 9 November 2020

We usually see these packed together in dense clusters, and those I found in our garden are no exception, growing from the roots of an old cherry tree we unfortunately had to fell. Mica is a mineral that can be ground down into a shiny powder and used in everything from make-up and paint to cement – it is sometimes referred to as “nature’s glitter”. The caps of the young mushrooms are coated in a thin layer of reflective mica-like cells that give rise to their common names, which also include Shiny Cap and Glistening Inky Cap. After picking, the gills slowly dissolve into a black, inky, spore-laden liquid, a process known as autodigestion or (more poetically) deliquescence. The nipple-like protrusions in the middle of the mushrooms in my photo go by the rather fab name “umbos”. In the right humid conditions Mica Cap can be prolific – one elm stump produced ten successive crops over a spring and summer – over 17 kilos of fresh mushrooms!

Photo by Pixabay

REDWING - 5 November 2020

I saw a small flock of these thrushes eating hawthorn berries along the old railway line, though you can sometimes see them in flocks of over a hundred birds. Like the larger Fieldfares, with whom they are often seen, they fly south from Scandinavia at night-time to spend the winter in Otley. They are quite nomadic, rarely returning to the same place to spend the winter. The red colouring is more under the wing, on the flanks, and they have a bold white stripe above the eyes. Redwings were the first bird species proved to detect fruit using ultra-violet vision – the waxy coatings of berries reflect UV light.

Photo by Pixabay

YEW - 4 November 2020

In the cemetery I think we have examples of both Common or English Yew and Irish Yew. The former is a native evergreen, the latter a mutant first discovered in County Fermanagh in 1780. The needles of the former grow in rows, whilst the latter’s are darker and grow from all around the stem. They obviously have much in common, in particular the fact that they are often to be found in churchyards. They can live a very long time, with some Yews in this country believed to be amongst the oldest plants in Europe, but it is difficult to age them accurately. Some churchyard Yews are thought to be older than the churches themselves, because Yews had important pre-Christian religious significance, but others are believed to have been planted there because the toxicity of nearly all parts of the tree deterred people from grazing animals there. Paradoxically, Yews were used as symbols of immortality, but also seen as omens of doom. The berry-like arils are an important winter food-source for thrushes and small mammals such as squirrels and dormice.

Photo by Neil Griffin

DEAD MAN'S FINGERS - 31 October 2020

The second part of this fungi’s latin/scientific name is Polymorpha, which means “many forms”, but this fantastic specimen found by Simon Carey on the Chevin is a perfect match with its colloquial name. It is in the same family as the truffle, and our example is the same colour, but it is inedible, and sometimes shades of blue or green. Unlike most fungi, it takes several months to distribute its spores – others are much quicker. It particularly likes the stumps of dead Beech trees.

Photo by Simon Carey

BLACK HEADED GULL - 30 October 2020

Chocolate Brown-Headed Gull would have been more of a mouthful, but more accurate, at least in the spring and summer. Now the colouring is reduced to just a couple of dark spots. Their latin/scientific name means “Laughing Gull”, a reference to their familiar call. They’re a gregarious bird, but with some odd interaction with other Black-Headed Gulls: they may lay their eggs in another’s nest, and may eat another’s chicks. During the early 19th century they were actually quite rare, but a population explosion in the following century saw their breeding population rise to over 100,000 pairs. They were also rare inland, but now they’re the gull we see most in Otley, and can even be seen in central London.

Photo by Pixabay

GREY SQUIRREL - 29 October 2020

Another occupant, perhaps, of the Wildlife Rogues’ Gallery, but let’s not over-anthropomorphise this animal. They may not be your favourite cute mammal, with their determined consumption of the goodies you intend for the birds, and it is undoubtedly a shame that they have displaced the Red Squirrel, but in their native North America they are ecologically essential, as a natural forest regenerator. It was the planet’s most destructive animal that brought them to these islands in the 19th century, as fashionable additions to estates, and once again we upset nature’s delicate balance. Grey Squirrels have astounding agility and they are one of the few mammals that can descend a tree head-first. At the moment they can often be seen on the ground, hoarding plentiful nuts and seeds for the harder times ahead. They create several thousand of these caches each season, and have a very accurate spatial memory with which to retrieve them. If they feel they are being watched by a competitor, they will pretend to bury the nut.

Photo by Pixabay

OAK - 28 October 2020

Blimey! How do I do the “King of the Forest” justice in a short paragraph? It really deserves a book. This magnificent tree can live up to thousand years: “300 to grow, 300 to live, 300 to die,” (die meaning a gradual retraction and the shedding of branches). It produces up to ten million acorns in its lifetime. It is a keystone species, which means that it plays an absolutely critical role in its ecosystem, supporting more wildlife than any other native tree. Over the years it has been used as a symbol of strength, morale, resistance and knowledge, featuring heavily in a range of mythologies. It is the national tree of many countries. People have utilized its strength and hardness in all sorts of ways: medieval battleships, the interior panelling of prestigious buildings such as the House of Commons debating chamber; oak furniture, timber-frame houses, flooring, wine barrels and in the smoking of foods such as cheese and fish.

Photo by Pixabay

RABBIT - 27 October 2020

Rabbits were important to us as a source of food and clothing for many centuries after the Normans brought them to Britain. Although now we’re more likely to have them as a pet, they still have a significant role in many a food chain, a crucial protein source for a number of mammals and birds. Counter-intuitively, a rabbit’s bobbing white tail is actually a defence mechanism. The predator focusses on it, only to be confused when the rabbit turns and it disappears. The second it takes the predator to re-focus is valuable in the rabbit’s escape attempt, and in a darting run with several sharp turns the seconds add up. The position of their eyes in their skull gives them almost 360 degree vision, the one small blind spot being at the bridge of the nose. I like to simultaneously appal and delight my schoolchildren with the “fun fact” that rabbits eat some of their droppings in order to extract further nutrients. They go one step further than yesterday’s Mallard, and sleep with both eyes open.

Photo by Pixabay

MALLARD - 26 OCtober 2020

They may be very common, but they’re worth a second look. This is not just for their breeding season plumage, with the glossy, bottle-green head of the male, and the iridescent blue patch on the secondary wing feathers of both sexes. These sociable omnivores are the main ancestors of most domesticated ducks. Their unfussy appetites have helped them thrive, but the bread that well-intentioned people feed them down at the park has very little nutritional value to them, and needs to be balanced with alternatives highlighted on our banner down there. They are so adaptable, in particular in living alongside human populations, that they are considered invasive species in some areas. Mallards can crossbreed with many other species of ducks, producing fertile hybrids, and as a result are said to cause “genetic pollution”, with the risk of extinction of other indigenous breeds. Mallard ducklings are precocial, which means that they are relatively mature and mobile on hatching, though they stay close to mum for warmth and protection and to learn their way round their habitat, especially to food sources. Ducklings and adults face a large number of predators, including foxes, herons, peregrines and pike. As a result they sleep with one eye open and one brain hemisphere awake.

Photo by Pixabay

MOLE - 23 October 2020

Well, okay, I didn’t actually see a mole, but the fresh mounds of earth were pretty compelling evidence. On the few occasions I have actually seen the mammal I’ve always been struck by its fish-out-of-water appearance and the strict practicality of its build. Eyes and ears seem virtually non-existent in a face dominated by a powerful nose, and the huge front claws (with extra thumbs) are adapted for some serious earth-moving. Yes, it is a bit irritating when molehills pop up in your lawn, but moles have positive effects on a garden, aerating the soil and eating slugs and other invertebrates that eat plants (it’s a myth that moles eat plant roots). I had to smile when my Dad stuck a windmill in a molehill on his lawn, having heard the vibrations are a humane way to deter moles, only to watch it shake and then fall as a mole carried on regardless. Centuries ago they were known as “Moldwarps” or “Mouldywarps”, names that derive from Germanic and Scandanavian words meaning “dirt tosser”. Males are called boars, females sows, and the collective noun is a “labour”. They are exceptionally good at processing oxygen, and can even re-use exhaled air.

Photo by Pixabay

AUTUMN FOLIAGE - 22 October 2020

My Mum and her sister once flew across the Atlantic for a tour of “The Spectacular Colours of New England in the Fall”. They really enjoyed it, but it’s a shame that Covid has prevented them from getting out and fully experiencing the particularly vivid palette on display here this year. Heck, even my journey home from work up the Scott Hall Road has me tempted to stop and try to capture the colourful show there in a photograph. Apparently, the sunny spells in spring and September, combined with some nurturing dampness in the summer, have created ideal conditions for this phenomenon. If you can, get out and drink it all in on sunny days like today and before the clocks go back.

Photo by Neil Griffin

TURKEYTAIL FUNGUS - 21 October 2020

This is another fungus with a helpful name slowly eating the rotting wood around Otley. We can thank the Americans for what is now its most popular name – in England it used to be known as the Many-zoned Polypore – more scientific perhaps, but a tad dull. It can actually vary quite a lot in appearance, whilst sticking to the broad contour-like template. This leathery fungus has been used over the years to decorate tables and even hats. Studies are taking place to investigate its possible use in cancer treatment.

Photo by Pixabay


These cute little lime-green spiders are to be found in the gardens, hedges and woodland of Otley. Confident in their camouflage colours they sit in the middle of their web rather than hiding. The female can be almost twice the size of the male, though still less than a centimetre. Their spiderlings are red when hatched, but brown by this time of year. All totally harmless to us, of course. Look out for them now before they disappear for the winter.

Photo by Ann Riley

ORANGE PEEL FUNGUS - 17 October 2020

Some fungus names leave you scratching your head (Destroying Angel, Chicken of the Woods, Hairy Curtain Crust anyone?) but not this one. As Claire’s photos show, the resemblance is uncanny. Its distinctiveness means I feel relatively safe mentioning that it’s edible, but apparently its bland taste doesn’t match its vivid appearance. Recently cleared, stony forestry tracks are particularly good places to spot it.

Photo by Claire Blindell

HARLEQUIN LADYBIRD - 15 October 2020

WFO-supporter Emma Dunnett yesterday spotted adults and larvae together on some fence posts above Weston Woods. The larvae have a quite incredible appearance, whilst the big adults confusingly vary a great deal. Also known as the Asian Ladybird because of its origins, the Harlequin has had a decidedly negative impact on UK wildlife since its introduction in 2004. Not only does it out-compete the native ladybirds for food, it also eats their eggs and larvae, and has better disease-resistance. Introduced in North America to control aphids, it’s having a similar effect there, and is known as the Halloween Ladybug due to its habit of gathering in huge numbers at this time of year (and sometimes invading people’s homes to overwinter). They can even give you a bit of a bite, albeit a small, irritating one. All in all, a bit of a monster!

Photo by Emma Dunnett

OYSTERCATCHER - 14 October 2020

I love these striking, noisy waders, with their long red beaks for opening molluscs or probing for worms. Once called Sea-pies, they were confined to the coast, but they have now spread inland and are not uncommon around Otley. I see them most flying over in pairs or small flocks – Wharfedale seems to be a bit of a highway for wildfowl and waders. Many of them will over-winter at the coast. They show a strong fidelity to both partner and home, with one study finding a pair that defended the same breeding site for twenty years. Nests are not much more than a scape in the ground, though Oystercatchers will sometimes Cuckoo-like lay their eggs in the nests of other birds such as gulls.

Photo by Pixabay

ROWAN - 13 October 2020

This is a hardy tree, for whom the sometimes disappointing weather of Otley is no problem at all – it flourishes in Arctic Norway. There are many different types of Rowan, one of which is the Mountain Ash, and several hybrids, such as Whitebeam. Watch out for birds such as Thrushes enjoying the berries at this time of year, and if we get a cold snap you might be lucky enough to see Waxwings, with their gorgeous plumage. Traditionally, people have used the berries in many different types of preserve and alcoholic drinks – there was a Welsh Rowan wine. The berries taste bitter, and need to be cooked or frozen to prevent indigestion or even kidney damage. Rowans crop up frequently in European mythology and folklore, largely as a protective entity – for example in Scotland there was a tradition of planting them near your gate or front door.

Photo by Pixabay

LARGE BLACK SLUG - 12 October 2020

Possessors of a strange beauty, but undeniably slimy, these invertebrates produce three different types of mucus: one as a lubricant for movement, one to prevent them drying out, and one particularly unappetizing type (that may also contain toxins) to deter predators. Also in their defensive armoury is the ability to contract to a hemispherical shape and rock from side to side to confuse attackers. They need a moist environment to facilitate this mucus production, so they’ll be happy in Otley today. Black Slugs are omnivorous, and as decomposers/consumers they play an important part in the health of the ecosystem, and a recent study suggested they may also promote plant diversity. Another study of the presence of mercury in their bodies determined that they could be useful to us in monitoring heavy metal pollution levels. The Black Slug is a hermaphrodite that prefers to find a mate but can self-fertilize. They are edible, but taste horrible (I know you were tempted).

Photo by Pixabay

ROOK - 10 October 2020

There are several rookeries in the Otley area, including one on Kirkgate, though the avian ones are quiet now after the din of spring and early summer. Away from these busy colonies Rooks can be a little difficult to distinguish from Crows, but the Woodland Trust have a straightforward guide – see the link below. There are several great collective nouns for Rooks– parliament, clamour, building and storytelling – and at this time of year flocks often amalgamate at dusk to roost together. They generally live quite close to human habitation – near farms, villages, and open towns – but only like us in moderation, avoiding dense populations, and in the case of arable farmers the affection is often not reciprocated. Like other Corvids, they are very intelligent, rivalling chimpanzees in their ability to use tools. During courtship the male will sometimes present the female with food, and he will collect most of the nesting material for her to put in place. Pairs bond for life.

Photo by Pixabay

HAZEL - 7 October 2020

There are many examples of this sturdy tree in the Otley area. Its edible nuts are loved by mice, squirrels and woodpeckers, as well as Nutella fans, and several species of moth, fungus and lichen have a special dependence on the Hazel tree. There are many uses for its strong timber, too. My neighbour cuts straight, slender lengths to be used as walking sticks, but its flexibility has also been utilised to make baskets, wattle and coracles. It is often coppiced – cut back regularly to stimulate growth as a crop. There is a lot of mythology surrounding it, Hazel has been regarded as a magical tree.

Photo by Pixabay

MISTLE THRUSH - 3 October 2020

This stocky, loud thrush exemplifies the complex inter-connectedness of nature with several mutually-beneficial relationships. So for example the bird’s great appetite for mistletoe berries (the origins of its name), benefits the plant through the excretion of its seeds on to branches where they can germinate. Also, Chaffinches and Mistle Thrushes often nest close to each other, with the combination of the former’s vigilance and the latter’s bold aggression benefiting the chances of the offspring of both. Mistle Thrushes are known to confront formidable foes – even cats and humans – in defence of their nests or a particularly good food source, which round Otley might well be a holly tree. Like Song Thrushes, they may use a particular stone as an “anvil” on which to smash the shells of snails. They are also known as Stormcocks, due to their habit of singing during wind and rain, and in normal conditions their voices can be heard up to two kilometres away. Their alarm call sounds a bit like an old football rattle.

Photo by Pixabay

BRACKEN - 1 October 2020

This common fern has been around for a very long time – fossils over 55 million years old have been found. Unfortunately it tends to dominate other plants and can spread rapidly. This, combined with its toxicity and the decline in its use for animal bedding, tanning, fertiliser and in the production of glass and soap, has led to its removal in many places. There was a government eradication programme, and some water companies use special filters to remove the spores. The toxicity issue is a complex one, not least because the young, curled fronds – called “fiddleheads” – have been eaten by many cultures over the years, especially in east Asia, and continue to be today. But bracken contains a carcinogenic compound that isn’t a threat to you as you walk through it on the Chevin, but can be a problem if you ingest it, and people working amongst bracken should wear masks when it is releasing spores. If you or your dog have spent extended time amongst bracken it’s also worth checking for the sheep ticks it hosts. Bracken is Swedish for fern.

Photo by Pixabay

JELLY EAR - 29 September 2020

The name of this fungus is spot on. You can find it growing on both living and dead wood all around Otley, mostly on Elder. It is edible (if you are 100% certain in your identification), and is used a lot in Chinese cuisine – they used to import large quantities from Australia. It has been much-used in folk medicine around the world, and modern science has subsequently given many of these traditional treatments credence. Children delight in feeling its texture, part fascinated, part repulsed! I tell them that, as with all mushrooms, the bit we see is effectively only the fruit, and that the complex main body is hidden from view.

Photo by Pixabay

TEASEL - 28 September 2020

Walk the riverbank between Gallows Hill and Knotford Nook at the moment, and the distinctive spiky brown seed-heads of the Teasel are easy to spot on their tall stalks. Goldfinches love to extract the seeds from these. Teasel used to be harvested, so that the seed-heads could be used in the textile industry to tease out the fibres on fabrics such as wool. Interestingly, studies suggest teasel is in a sense carnivorous. It collects rainwater in the cups formed where the leaves meet the stem. It then absorbs nutrients from the insects that die in that water. My Oxford Dictionary of Plant Lore tells me that this water was thought to have various medicinal qualities, especially in the treatment of sore eyes.

Photo by Pixabay

HEATHER - 26 September 2020

The UK has most of the world’s Heather moorland, and of course the Chevin benefits from its mauve flowers at this time of year. Before the nineteenth century it actually had negative associations with rural poverty. Historically, people have put it to a wide range of uses: thatch, fodder, bedding, fuel, brooms and (before the use of hops) beer. Then there’s the distinctive heather honey – you should be able to buy some made by Ilkley Moor bees at Stephen Smith’s. Heather nectar is an important food source for butterflies, bees and moths.

Photo by Pixabay

GREAT TIT - 25 September 2020

As a teacher, I like to tell my children that the common call of the Great Tit is “tea-cher, tea-cher”, but their communication skills are actually really quite sophisticated. So, for example, one study found they make different alarm calls for different predators, and another found that birds living near the M25 have changed the pitch of their calls to be heard over the roar of the traffic. The change is so substantial that it’s thought that in coming years they will not be able to communicate with other Great Tits, and will effectively form a sub-species. All Great Tits have a relatively wide repertoire, and this has been explained using the Beau Geste hypothesis. He propped up dead bodies to give the impression his fort was better defended than it was, and it’s possible the large number of Great Tit calls give the impression of a densely populated habitat. This is supported by the fact that Great Tits with wider vocabularies are socially dominant and more successful breeders.

Photo by Pixabay

EARTHWORM - 24 September 2020

The humble earthworm is actually both interesting and vital. Its skin performs a range of useful functions. It breathes through it, needing to keep it moist to facilitate the absorption of dissolved oxygen. Conversely, on wet days like today, they may come out of the soil because their burrows have flooded and they can’t breathe. The skin also has receptor cells sensitive to light and touch (worms don’t have eyes), and it is covered in bristles that move in and out, enabling the worm to move. In one acre of land there can be more than a million of these hermaphrodites. Their benefit to us lies in their contribution to soil health: they mix it, loosen it, aerate it and their slime contains nitrogen, a plant nutrient. They also eat decaying matter, and can eat their weight each day. Unfortunately, it’s a myth that when split in two they can regenerate as two new worms, though they can survive the loss of their “tail”.

Photo by Pixabay

GUELDER ROSE - 21 September 2020

The clusters of bright red berries on the Guelder Rose bushes at Gallows Hill look fantastic in today’s sunshine. Guelder refers to a province of the Netherlands, but it is in Slavic countries where this plant is really culturally prominent. In the Ukraine the plant is referred to in songs and poems, and features in decorative art – the berries symbolize one’s home, blood and family roots, but also on occasion beauty. It is also one of the national symbols of Russia, with the famous song Kalinka named after it (click on the link below). Each berry contains a single seed, which is distributed when eaten by birds – Bullfinches and Waxwings love them.

Photo by Neil Griffin

SILVER BIRCH - 19 September 2020

When the British Isles were covered with huge swathes of forest, Silver Birch was one of the dominant species. Although these woodlands have shrunk dramatically, there are still plenty of Birch to be seen around Otley. The bark is more white than silver, but these trees support a lot of wildlife, not least because their fractured canopy allows a lot of light down to the shrub and ground layers below. It is a pioneer species, in that it is one of the first to grow again in disturbed land – the old railway line east of town has many good examples of this. We use its oily, peeling bark as tinder in bushcraft, but in Finland they use leafy, fragrant boughs to gently beat themselves in the sauna, and used to make shoes out of the bark – unsurprisingly it is their national tree. We also use it for furniture, racecourse jumps and kitchen utensils. Resin from heated bark makes a good waterproof glue, and the spring-time sap can be consumed like maple syrup. Watch out for tangled masses of twigs – known as “Witches’ Brooms” and caused by a fungus – growing amongst the branches.

Photo by Pixabay.

CHIFFCHAFF - 18 September 2020

The name derives from this seed-eater’s habit of searching through the chaff for grain after the farmer has threshed their crop. During the breeding season their diet switches to invertebrates. An old name for a Chaffinch is a Spink, which reflects their call. Chaffinches are one of those birds that have regional dialects, and a study revealed that if a young bird is not exposed to its father’s song during a certain critical period after hatching, it will never properly learn it. The colourful males will be undergoing their ten week autumn moult now, and their new feathers will have a buff fringe, which makes them look browner. The ends of these feathers wear away over winter, so that the birds have their brighter plumage to show off come spring. In Victorian times they were popular pets, and a guide to caged songbirds included the following: “To parents and guardians plagued with a morose and sulky boy, my advice is, buy him a chaffinch”. Competitions were held where people would bet on which caged Chaffinch repeated its song the most, a practice that continues in Belgium to this day. Sadly, Victorians believed that blinding a Chaffinch with a hot needle encouraged it to sing.

Photo by Pixabay.

RAGWORT - 17 September 2020

This common plant with bright yellow flowers was rated in the UK top ten for nectar production and thus plays an important role for Otley pollinators. It has a lengthy flowering period from June to November, and can produce up to 120,000 seeds, though only a tiny proportion are successful. Ragwort has been identified as home and food source to 77 UK insects, 30 of which use it exclusively as their food source. Ten of the latter are rare or threatened – it really is crucial to our ecology. The leaves don’t smell good, giving rise to alternative names such as Stinking Willie and Mare’s Fart, and its bitter taste means that although Ragwort is toxic to horses and cattle, poisonings are rare. We’ve mentioned before the reliance the caterpillars of the Cinnabar Moth have on Ragwort, and in some countries the moth is used to control the plant.

Photo by Pixabay

CANDLESNUFF - 16 September 2020

As well as looking like a snuffed-out candle wick, this fungus can also resemble a deer’s antlers, hence its other name Stag’s Horn. First Nature describe it as a “ubiquitous little rotter”, and you should have no difficulty finding it at Gallows Hill or on the Chevin. It tends to attack wood after other types of fungi have already started breaking it down. It is bioluminescent – it literally glows in the dark – but not brightly. This phenomenon is easier to see if you cut into the wood to expose the mycelium (the main body of the fungus), or look at other bioluminescent fungi like Honey Fungus. Incredibly, Candlesnuff contains compounds that are active against some human carcinomas, a chance discovery made at Bradford University.

Photo by Pixabay

GOLDCREST - 15 September 2020

It’s easier to hear the high-pitched, repetitive call of Europe’s smallest bird than it is to see it. However, a successful search is rewarded with a view of a cute little bird with a yellow stripe on the top of its head. The male has a further splash of orange in the middle of its crest, which it raises in courtship display. There are plenty of them on the Chevin, but I recently saw one next to Sainsbury’s, at Myers Croft Beck, so you might get one in your garden. Despite weighing roughly the same as a 5p piece, some of our Goldcrests migrate from northern Europe, and there are reports of Goldcrests covering as much as 500 miles in a day! Understandably, some of them break their journeys on fishing boats or oil rigs in the North Sea. This led to Suffolk fishermen calling them Herring Spink or Tot O’er Seas.

Photo by Pixabay

NATURES BOUNTY - 14 September 2020

MELLOW FRUITFULNESS: Free food. Healthy food. It’s out there, all around Otley, and sometimes in the most unlikely of places. Just make sure your foraging is sustainable and safe, and as that is much easier in the case of fruit, that’s what I’m focusing on today. Correctly identifying stuff that isn’t going to make you ill is obviously crucial, but also only pick from plentiful sources, so that there is enough for the plant to reproduce and for wildlife to feed on. Most popular are the blackberries, and the tough bramble plants are the ones I was referring to that are to be found in surprising parcels of neglected land around town. There are a lot of elderberries around at the moment, too, but this year’s crop of bilberries on the Chevin hasn’t been great and the peak season has passed. Don’t forget rose hips, and also sloes, the dark blue fruit of the blackthorn bush, both to be found in a lot of our hedgerows.

Photo by Pixabay

ASH - 12 September 2020

The third most common tree in Britain is of course ubiquitous around Otley, but this may well change dramatically as Ash Dieback spreads and threatens to cost the UK economy £15 billion pounds (Current Biology vol 29). This is due not only to the cost of felling and replanting, but also the loss of “ecosystem services” such as timber, flood mitigation and shading. The wood is strong, resilient and flexible, and used to make furniture, staircases, tool and sports handles, and even some guitar bodies (eg Bruce Springsteen’s Telecaster on the Born To Run album cover). Early plane and car frames were made of Ash. It lights and burns easily on campfires and barbecues, but don’t hang around under an Ash on a wild and windy day, as they are prone to losing limbs. The trees are valuable as a habitat to other wildlife and then there is their ability to lock in carbon as we fight climate change. Interestingly, they are in the Olive family and produce an oil chemically similar to olive oil.

Photo by Pixabay

ATLANTIC SALMON - 10 September 2020

They're back! Next time you’re cursing another miserable journey back to Otley on the X84, think about the salmon’s journey to our town and beyond. Starting off near Greenland or maybe the Faroes, they use their sense of smell to navigate back to the shallow shingle bottoms of our rivers, where they were born, upstream from Otley. Not only do they have to cope with the distance, the unusual transition from salt-water to fresh, the predators, the oppositional current and the waterfalls and weirs, but they do it all on an empty stomach – they don’t feed once they’ve re-entered our rivers. They’re hard-wired to undertake this battle so that they can spawn and start a new generation, after which the majority of them will die. To see a small part of this incredible journey, watch out at the weir in the coming months. Unfortunately, they don’t yet seem to have got the hang of the special salmon ladder we’ve put in at the lido side. Instead you’ll probably see them launching themselves out of the water at other points, often taking several attempts before they are successful. What a creature.

Photo by Pixabay

BIRCH POLYPORE - 9 September 2020

This rubbery bracket fungus can be seen growing on Birch trees on the Chevin. It spreads through the dispersal of spores, and at this time of year the air is so full of them that you will breathe in thousands (harmlessly, unless you’re in that tiny group of people who are allergic to them). It’s thought that it establishes itself in small wounds in the bark, then may lay dormant for years, compartmentalised in a small area by the tree’s defence mechanisms, until the tree is weakened – for example by drought – at which point the fungus slowly kills its host. Wood decayed like this often smells of green apples. Although we can’t eat Birch Polypore, hundreds of invertebrates do, and some use it as a breeding site. Its other name is Razorstrop, due to it being used to sharpen razors, knives and other tools. “Otzi the Iceman”, the 5,300 year old mummy found in the Alps, was carrying Birch Polypore.

Photo by Joyce and Mike Clerk

GREY HERON - 8 September 2020

To me these big birds don’t look at home in the air – a heavy-winged, dark presence, like a modern-day pterodactyl – but when you spot them statuesque in the shallows of the Wharfe, the shapes all make sense. Ghost-like, they blend into the background surprisingly well, and the long neck and beak are perfect for a lightning-quick stab at an unfortunate fish, frog or bird (and even occasionally a mole). They also look incongruous when nesting high up in a tree, with a mess of a nest, and preposterous-looking young sporting punky haircuts. They nest in colonies, and the surnames Earnshaw and Hernshaw mean “Heron Wood”. Roast heron was once a specially-prized dish. In 1465, at the meal to celebrate the appointing of the new Archbishop of York (who I think owned a lot of Otley, and had a “palace” here), 400 herons were served to guests.

Photo by Pixabay

YARROW - 7 September 2020

This sweet-smelling flower has a whole host of different names, several relating to its old military use in staunching the flow of blood from wounds: Bloodwort, Staunchweed, Herbe Militaris, and Knight’s Milfoil. The latin genus name Achillea Millfolium relates to such a use by Achilles in Greek mythology. Its feathery leaves give rise to names like Milfoil and Thousand Weed; whilst the name Nosebleed relates to its old use in both stopping or starting nosebleeds! It spreads using rhizomes – horizontal underground stems spreading out from the mother plant, from which roots grow downwards and stems up. It is popular with insects including beetles, moth larvae and pollinators (plant it in your garden to attract butterflies). Several cavity-nesting birds, including Starlings, line their nests with Yarrow, possibly because it inhibits the growth of parasites.

Photo by Pixabay

COMMON DARTER - 5 September 2020

Best seen near the Gallows Hill ponds, but if you’re lucky you might get one of these dragonflies dropping into your garden. They come in a confusing range of colours - yellows, oranges, browns and reds - depending on gender and age. As the name suggests, they hunt by ambushing their prey, perching on (or hovering at) a vantage point till it flies past. They then take it to a favoured perch to eat. Common Darters have an unusual way of depositing their eggs: the male and female fly in tandem in a precise way down towards the surface of the water, near which the female drops the eggs. At this time of year you might see them sat on a twig or fence sunbathing. Dragonflies used to be known as the Devil’s Darning Needles, sewing up the lips of those who swear and scold.

Photo by Pixabay

FLY AGARIC - 4 September 2020

This iconic toadstool is not too difficult to find on the Chevin at this time of year. It is classified as poisonous, and crops up throughout popular culture, from Victorian literature such as Alice in Wonderland, to video games (Super Mario). We saw several examples last year on the excellent fungus walk organised by the Friends of Otley Chevin Forest. I learned a lot about fungi, not least that identification can be really tricky, and combining this knowledge with an awareness of the risk of poisoning, I resolved to never eat the fungi I find (I’ll leave that to the experts). Interestingly, some fungi are poisonous only at a certain stage of their growth, some are poisonous only to certain people, and some are poisonous only if eaten with alcohol. Also, the white spots on Fly Agaric can wash off in the rain, leaving it looking like the edible Caesar’s Mushroom.

Photo by Pixabay

KESTREL - 3 September 2020

There’s no mystery why this is such a popular bird and so ubiquitous in popular culture, from the gritty film classic “Kes” to the children’s story “Windhover” beautifully illustrated by Christian Birmingham. The distinctive way it hunts, hovering suspended in one spot, is impressive enough, but then you learn that its eyes are adapted to see ultra-violet light, such as that emitted by mice and vole urine, which consequently forms a helpful trail to such prey. As with most raptors, and unlike most other birds, the female is larger than the male. This may be so that the female, who does the bulk of the parenting, is well-equipped to deal with threats to the eggs and young, such as from crows and other raptors, or it may be because the pair will look for different prey. A falconer who seemed to know his stuff once told me that many British birds of prey are actually bigger than their North American equivalents, which is an interesting inversion of the usual trans-Atlantic comparison.

Photo by Pixabay

LACEWING - 2 September 2020

One of these – a Common Green Lacewing – flew in our window. They are another invertebrate with wildly contrasting life stages. The delicate adult feeds on nectar, pollen and honeydew. They over-winter in leaf litter, emerging in the warmth of Spring. The female lays hundreds of oval eggs, attaching them by stalks to plants near food sources. The subsequent larvae are ferocious little predators, with an appearance to match. They have large, pincer-like mandibles, and use these to catch a huge variety of insects, sometimes lifting them up to prevent escape. They then inject their victim with enzymes which digest their internal organs. The resulting fluid is then sucked out! Added to this, if food is scarce, they will eat each other. This carnage stops after two to three weeks, when they secrete silk to create a cocoon. Roughly two weeks later the adult emerges. The larvae’s ability to eat their way through colonies of aphids, for example, is important in pest control, protecting crops as varied as Egyptian cotton and French grapes.

Photo by Pixabay

HAREBELL - 1 September 2020

Also known as the Scottish bluebell, this is yet another attractive wildflower to be found on the railway line east. They like dry, nutrient-poor habitats, such as grasslands and heaths, and can grow in cracks in cliffs or walls, and in stable sand dunes. Curiously, Plantlife named the Harebell the county flower of Yorkshire in 2002 – a bold assertion when the white rose is so prominent. Mind you, their website also says the flower’s delicate appearance is deceptive – it’s actually really tough.

Photo by Pixabay

COLLARED DOVE - 31 August 2020

A pair of these monogamous birds live around our garden, and their cooing is a welcome addition to the local soundtrack. I don’t know where their nest is, but Collared Doves do generally nest close to human habitation. The male incubates the eggs during the day, and the female at night, and this sharing of parental duties continues when the eggs hatch. Three to four broods a year is normal, but there have been instances of six! Sometimes these broods overlap, in the sense that the female takes breaks from incubating eggs in a second nest to feed recently fledged young who are not yet independent. Originally only resident in warm areas of Asia, the Collared Dove has been described as “one of the greatest colonisers of the bird world”, and now occupies many cooler places, arriving in the UK in the 1950’s. Young birds have been recorded travelling 600km from their birthplace. Apparently Collared Doves have very dusty feathers and when they fly into windows leave a highly-detailed print of individual feathers, beak and even eyelids.

Photo by Pixabay

SILVER Y MOTH - 29 August 2020

It’s Moth Night 2020 today, and although the cool and somewhat windy conditions are far from ideal, you should stand a good chance of seeing this moth using a torch. The name comes from the silvery Y-shaped markings on each of its brilliantly camouflaged forewings. They are migratory and visit Otley gardens for nectar from May onwards. In the late Autumn the cold will kill some, but others will migrate south to winter around the Mediterranean and Black Seas. I find it incredible that such small, delicate creatures successfully travel such distances, and was surprised to hear that moths sometimes land on offshore oil rigs, attracted to the lights. Moths, too, are vital pollinators – a recent University College London study found 45% of moths carrying pollen. Another moth you should look out for tonight is the Large Yellow Underwing.

Photo by Pixabay


Perhaps an association with the “scruffiness” of some of the sites it populates can lead to this flower being undervalued. Also known as Fireweed, it’s often the first plant to colonise waste ground, such as that left after a forest fire. Mine were on the old railway line east of town, and prior to the expansion of the railway network in this country it was quite rare. The flowers are often mentioned in British post-war literature, due to their ability to pop up on bomb-sites (another name is Bombweed), and there’s a children’s novel set during the Blitz actually called “Fireweed”. In 2002 Plantlife, the wild plant conservation charity, held a poll to choose the flower of London and Rosebay Willowherb was the winner. The seeds’ silky hairs are a very effective means of catching the wind for dispersal. Because it quickly establishes itself on disturbed land, the plant is used in land management: it reduces the risk of erosion, it’s good at recycling nutrients left in soil after a fire, and is also relatively fire-resistant. As my photo shows, the flowers are also popular with pollinators.

Photo by Pixabay

LONG-TAILED TIT - 27 August 2020

You rarely seem to see these gregarious birds alone, and often you hear the flock making frequent “contact” calls before you see them. They look a bit like feathery lollipops (short roundish body, long thin tail), and close inspection reveals a lot of subtle pink as well as the dominant black and white. Their nests use a Velcro-like combination, where the tiny leaves of moss act like hooks catching loops of spider silk (from egg cocoons) to give structural stability. The outside is camouflaged with flakes of lichen, and the inside insulated with thousands of downy feathers. Unfortunately, after all this effort, as many as four in five nests suffer predation. However, unsuccessful parents will then help other pairs (usually relatives), with one study finding roughly half of nests had at least one helper. At the end of the breeding season it is these extended family groups that form the flock. The large group roost by huddling together to reduce their vulnerability to the cold.

Photo by Pixabay


Seen In Otley Today 100th edition!

These molluscs are hermaphrodites. They need to mate for their eggs to be fertilised, and prior to this each snail will try to stab the other with one or more love darts. These are made internally of similar material to their shells, and are stored in a dart sac. The process is a form of sexual selection. It doesn’t involve the transfer of sperm, with the benefit to any successful snail coming from the introduction of hormones from the mucus on the dart. These allow more of the sperm introduced later to survive. Fertilised eggs are buried in the soil.

Photo by Ann Riley

MEASOW CRANESBILL - 25 August 2020

Another wildflower to be found on the old railway line to the east of town, this geranium is very tough, surviving in temperatures down to -20C in its homelands of the Altai mountains. Also, if for example roadside flowers have been cut down by mowers in June, the plant often produces a second flush of flowers in September. It is more abundant in Scandinavia, where it is called Midsommar Blomster – Midsummer Flower – because it can always be relied on to be flowering in time for their midsummer celebrations. Our name refers to the beak-like seed capsule.

Photo by Pixabay

HOUSE SPARROW - 24 August 2020

I love the frequent din of sparrows arguing in our privet hedge – they seem more cantankerous than your average bird. Hopefully they are more appreciated now their numbers have fallen in both rural and urban areas (try spotting them in London these days). The Great Sparrow Campaign was one of four pest control schemes in the “Great Leap Forwards” in 1950’s China, but it’s believed it only resulted in increases in the insects they feed on. Ancient Greeks associated sparrows with Aphrodite, due to their perceived lustfulness, a theme both Chaucer and Shakespeare took up. Sparrows may still be nesting now in August – they have as many as four broods – no wonder they’re a bit irritable. They have been known to pluck feathers from live pigeons to line their nests with. House sparrows often nest in loose colonies, with nests as little as 20cm apart. A sedentary species, having hatched they generally spend their lives within 300 metres or so of that spot.

Photo by Pixabay

EUROPEAN HONEYBEE - 22 August 2020

EUROPEAN HONEYBEE: One of the first insects to be domesticated, and probably the single most important pollinator for agriculture globally. Colonies can consist of tens of thousands of bees, and they communicate with each other through pheromones (eg alarm) and dance (eg food location). They are often used as model organisms in studies into fields such as social evolution, learning and memory. Honey found in an Egyptian tomb dating back 3000 years was said to be still edible.

Photo by Pixabay

COMMON TOADFLAX - 21 August 2020

These are easy to spot on the old railway line east of town. Also known as Butter & Eggs and Impudent Lawyer (!), they are a popular food source for bumblebees and flies, and have been commonly used in folk medicine for a wide variety of conditions. They are similar to Snapdragons, and share the characteristic that children can make the “snapping” flowers “talk” by squeezing them at the base of the corolla (the crown of outer petals). This comparison has led to other colloquial names such as Bunny Mouths, Lion’s Mouth and Calf’s Snout. As you may know, I’m very much an amateur botanist, and I’m helped immeasurably by the free app Seek (see link below). This uses your phone’s camera to identify plants (and invertebrates, fungi etc), and if there’s no coverage, can use a photo later. Although it is incredibly accurate, I usually go online later to check its verdict.

Photo by Pixabay

NUTHATCH - 20 August 2020

Whereas a lot of birds are pretty quiet and keeping a low profile at this time of year, two nuthatches were twittering away as I walked through the cemetery. I couldn’t see them, which was a shame, as they show great agility as they forage along the branches for seeds and insects, often walking upside down or descending head-first. At their best these stout, angular little birds have attractive plumage too, a bit like an undercover Kingfisher with blueish grey backs and chestnut chests. They get their name from their habit of wedging larger food in a crevice and hacking at it with their strong bill. They also store food in holes or under stones.

Photo by Pixabay

YELLOWJACKETS - 19 August 2020

Continuing our occasional series on some of the perceived “Bad Guys” of the animal kingdom, today we look at the wasps invariably compared unfavourably with bees. As well as a poor contribution to the Spreads shelves at the supermarket, this is probably due to the fact they will sting repeatedly, unlike for example, the honeybee, whose barbed stinger tends to get stuck in human skin, along with part of its digestive tract, a huge rupture the bee can’t survive. However, as well as being an important part of the ecological balance, Yellowjackets help us as an important predator of pest insects. They feed these to their larvae, but are unable to digest such food themselves due to their thin waists. In return the larvae emit a sugar-rich spit the adults can drink. The traditional late-summer wasp problem occurs because there are no larvae left, and so the workers look for sugar in the form of nectar or your alfresco meal. Wasp larvae are a sustainable alternative to meat protein, one of the insects already eaten by over two billion people daily. They are a social insect, and build impressive nests out of the wood they chew into a paper-like pulp. We’ve had them nesting in our wall cavity this year, and they also nest in trees. Incidentally, for a contrast with “nature red in tooth and claw” see the second link below.

Photo by Pixabay

TUFTED VETCH - 17 August 2020

There’s a lot of this in the scrappy bits of land adjoining the A660 as it roars up the Chevin (during lockdown it was a peaceful route with spectacular views). Also known as Bird or Cow Vetch and Fingers & Thumbs, it is popular with bees and butterflies, but also with cattle farmers who use it as a forage crop. In addition, it enriches the soil with its nitrogen-fixing properties. This means it converts the nitrogen gas in the air, which is useless to most organisms, into ammonia in the soil, which is metabolized by most. Like other members of the pea family, when it touches other plants it shoots noose-like tendrils from the tips of its leaves and fastens itself on.


One of our committee members saw a juvenile visiting a feeder in her garden near Burras Lane this morning (first picture). This Autumn it will moult and its red forehead feathers will be replaced with black ones. As an adult it will have red under its tail, and if it’s a male, a red nape. Hopefully this youngster will avoid flying into a window, which is a major cause of death in young woodpeckers. As well as striking colouring, these woodpeckers have interesting anatomical adaptions to enable their machine-like pecking or drumming. They do this to find food and excavate nest holes but also to communicate. The Great Spotted drums faster than any other woodpecker – between 10 and 16 strikes per second – and the impact is such that it ought to cause the brain to rotate in the way that causes concussion in humans. But this is prevented by sophisticated shock-absorbing adaptations in the way the beak joins the skull. Also, the root of the tongue coils round the back of the skull, so that it has the exceptional length to reach beetle larvae deep in the wood.

COMMON EARWIG - 14 August 2020

Commenting on the essential absurdity of bees making honey, Eddie Izzard once asked “Do earwigs make chutney?” Probably not, but that isn’t going to stop me continuing to rehabilitate the public images of the Bad Boys of British Nature (see eg Magpies) with this interesting nocturnal insect. For a start, the name doesn’t reflect any tendency to hide or burrow in the human ear. The ear reference is believed to relate to the human ear-like shape of their rarely used wings. The wig bit is derived from an old English word for beetle. Earwigs are also very unusual among the non-social insects in that they exhibit maternal instincts. For example, they protect their eggs, keep them warm and continuously clean them to protect them from fungi. The mother may help the nymphs to hatch, and continues to look after the young for a while, sheltering and feeding them. She does this by regurgitation, and should she die, the young will eat her. Drat – there goes the image make-over. To me the location of their fierce-looking pincers (that they use for predation and defence) on their rear-end looks somewhat odd, as if tacked on as an after-thought. There are roughly two thousand species of earwigs in the world, and seven in the UK.

Photo by Pixabay

JUVENILE ROBIN - 13 August 2020

Whilst out for my stroll, I spotted this little guy perched on the post of the gate to Gallows Hill. The little juvenile doesn’t look much like his parents yet, he is totally missing his bright orange-red chest. He has left the safety of his nest made of grass, moss and leaves, comfortably lined with wool and hair. Their brown mottled feathers signal to adults that they are not a threat to their territories, this means they aren’t attacked. At 2-3 months old, in time for Christmas these juveniles will have their bright familiar orange-red chests and become more recognisable as our nations favourite bird! This means they will also have to find and defend their own territories.

By River Six

LORDS AND LADIES - 12 August 2020

Little alien antenna are popping up under the hedgerows along the river and in Gallows Hill. These short stalks of bright red berries are unusual indeed, the plant also known as Cuckoo Pint, Adam and Eve, Wild Arum, as well as many other names flowers early in the Spring. Above the male flower is a ring of hairs that act as an insect trap, the flower emits a faecal odour and maintains a temperature of 15°C warmer than the surrounding environment which proves irresistible to insects, especially midges. When they enter the flower, the hairs trap the midges until the flower dusts the insect with pollen, the next day they are released to carry the pollen to female flowers and pollinate them. The female flowers have now formed the cluster of red berries which may look enticing but are extremely poisonous to us, so please enjoy looking at them but do not touch them!

By River Six


The lepidopterists will probably wince at my use of this colloquial name, which is used for both the Large White and the Small White butterfly (and I think I probably used it in the past for the odd Green-veined White, too). To be fair, distinguishing them can be tricky – a Large may be smaller than a Small! The Butterfly Conservation link below has some tips. Anyway, yesterday there were numerous examples flying in and above my garden, oblivious to the drone which was also hanging about, and there are plenty at large today. Their green caterpillars can reduce brassicas to mere skeletons, and those of the Large protect themselves by accumulating mustard oil from such plants that makes them smell and taste unpleasant. They also move around so as to scatter the tell-tale holes that might alert a predator to their location. Although lacking the spectacular colouring of the Peacock, this group of butterflies are still worth investigating.

Photo by Pixabay


If you’re on the Chevin over the weekend, watch out for these colourful butterflies – ten were seen together yesterday, feeding on thistle nectar between Yorkgate and Surprise View. You may of course see them in your garden, their numbers are holding up well, with the population increasing in many areas due to warmer temperatures. Whereas some of our butterflies migrate – for example the Painted Lady migrates all the way from North Africa – Peacocks are resident, hibernating in trees and buildings. The caterpillars are black with white spots and spikes at intervals along the length of their bodies. They like nettles. With wings closed, adults hope to avoid predators by blending in with leaves, but their impressive plan B, suddenly opening their wings to expose two pairs of eye-spots, is often effective in scaring birds as large as chickens. They also hiss, by rubbing the veins in their wings together, a deterrent they rely on when hibernating in the dark and threatened by rodents.

Photo by Pixabay

DEVIL'S COACH HORSE - 7 August 2020

I love this stroppy little beetle, and not just for its cracking name. If you disturb it under a rock or log, it will raise up its abdomen, scorpion-style. It will also open its jaws and sometimes squirt a foul-smelling liquid out of its abdomen. It’s said that it can deliver a painful bite, but on the countless occasions I’ve picked them up to show people this has never happened to me. At night they are voracious predators, eating insects, spiders and slugs. They have wings, but rarely fly. An old British folk story has the beetle eating the core of Eve’s apple, and the lesson that anyone crushing one is forgiven seven sins.

Photo by Anne Riley

MAGPIE - 6 August 2020

To me it seems a shame that we anthropomorphize these birds and regard them as villains or bullies. Yes, they do eat the eggs and young of smaller birds, but so do other birds (owls, woodpeckers), and this is just part of the natural balance. Cats kill a lot of birds too (one recent survey suggests a million a week in the UK), but the RSPB believe that neither have a significant effect on bird populations. Most young birds die naturally before adulthood – that’s why they have large broods. The idea that Magpies steal shiny objects is not backed by scientific evidence either – in fact, like many creatures, they are probably unsettled by unusual objects. “Black and white” doesn’t do justice to the Magpie’s plumage – there’s a blue/purple/green iridescent sheen to some of their feathers. As with the other Corvids, they are very intelligent birds, especially when motivated by food. They are one of the few non-mammal species to recognise themselves in a mirror test.

RESILIENT TREES - 5 August 2020

Although we must focus on the loss of species (we are one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world), I thought it worthwhile to mention today a few examples of the adaptability of trees round my end of Otley. Starting with the Ash at the Pool Road entrance to the “Conker Park”. It has grown round the wall, seeming to absorb it, and continues unabashed. Then there are the Sycamore saplings very quickly colonising the terrace in front of the old Summercross pub. The Sycamore is a tough tree, tolerant of both wind and pollution, and with extremely fertile seeds. Finally there are the Ash trees further out along the road to Pool, on the opposite side of the road to Moor Drive, which have grown round the farmer’s wire fence. Not strictly an example of resilience, but also look out for a great example of inosculation in a Sycamore at the park end of the white bridge. This is where two branches join on to each other, self-grafting as it were, after movement has rubbed away the bark. When it happens between two trees they are known as Husband & Wife trees, or Marriage trees.


These are pretty easy to spot by the Wharfe, where they feed on invertebrates with great agility, hopping from stone to stone above the rushing water. I saw a parent with a young bird near the weir, but they might even turn up at your garden pond (construction of which is the single best thing you can do in your garden for wildlife). They nest on rock ledges, or sometimes in holes in man-made structures, such as bridges. Grey Wagtails can be confused with Yellow Wagtails, as both have yellow undersides, but the former have dark grey uppers and the longest wagging tails of our Wagtails. These tails mean that the typical wagtail movements of rocking and see-sawing on the ground and undulating in flight are more extreme than in the rest of the family. Yellow wagtails also spend our winter in warmer climes. Grey Wagtail numbers have increased and their range extended with improvements in water quality in many of our rivers.

Photo by Pixabay

LEOPARD SLUG - 3 August 2020

I’m not expecting quite so many Likes for this post, but bear with me. My Dad used to gently rib me that all the Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth campaigns I was involved with were to save the cute end of the animal spectrum – what about the slimy and hairy ones? I used to answer that they generally weren’t in existential trouble. That has changed now, of course, with insect numbers plummeting, for example, and I have spent some of lockdown trying to get to know the invertebrates in my garden. The leopard slug has been one of my favourites. As well as their striking appearance, they’re really quite fascinating. For a start, they are actually a friend of the gardener, as they eat other slugs (as well as rotting plants and fungi), and whereas in Britain they are almost always found near human habitation, in Ireland the opposite is the case. They also have an extraordinary mating method: the pair use a thick strand of mucus to hang suspended in the air from a branch or other structure (please don’t try this at home).

Photo by Pixabay

BROWN HARE - 2 August 2020

Not a common sight close to Otley, one of our committee members spotted one yesterday. They are largely nocturnal and shy, but sightings increase in spring, when they chase each other around in daylight. Most people are familiar with the saying “mad as a March hare”, but are less likely to know that their boxing matches involve a female batting away a male. They do this either to show that they’re not ready to mate, or to test the male’s determination. Unlike the burrowing rabbits, hares nest in a slight depression in the ground – a “form” – and so the young – “leverets” – are active immediately so as not to be vulnerable. Adults aim to escape predators such as foxes and buzzards by out-running them over distance (they can reach 45mph) – they have larger legs, hearts and nostrils to facilitate this (rabbits run in short bursts). They eat grasses and weeds, and like rabbits they sometimes eat their faecal pellets to recover lost nutrients. In the last ten years I’ve noticed a trend using hare images in home décor, which is fine by me.

Photo by Pixabay

SPARROWHAWK - 31 July 2020

Although the one I saw this morning was flapping quite high over Otley, I usually find their visits to my garden quite exhilarating. Not then the hunting methods of most of our local birds of prey - the soaring of the buzzard or the hovering of the kestrel – the sparrow-hawk dashes at low-level, dipping into the gardens to take small birds by surprise. Females are up to 25% bigger than the males, which is one of the biggest differences in any bird species, and this is reflected in their appetites – they tend to take starlings, thrushes and pigeons, whilst the males go for finches, tits and sparrows. It is believed that cuckoos look like sparrow-hawks in order to avoid aggression from the smaller birds whose nests and parenting they hope to borrow.

Photo by Pixabay


Not only are bees crucial to the world’s ecosystems, but they are very sophisticated creatures indeed. They have even learned how to “score goals” – well, roll a ball to a target in return for food (see first link below). Red-tailed Bumblebees are able to create a great deal of heat using their flight muscles, and they do this to incubate their brood and regulate the nest temperature generally. As well as eating nectar and pollen, the worker-bees will sometimes try to eat the queen’s eggs, in which case she will head-but them, and threaten them with her mandibles (not so sophisticated).

Photo by Anne Riley

SMOOTH NEWT - 29 July 2020

Eagle-eyed observers may have spotted that we made a slight mistake yesterday – the “Common Lizard” in the video was in fact a Smooth Newt. We were in two minds, and although our criteria were correct, we chose the wrong option. The velvety skin and spotty belly point to it being a newt, and whilst they are to be found in gardens, it’s still exciting to see them (and so close to the centre of town). Wildlife can be difficult to distinguish – I sometimes struggle with the way some birds have different plumage at different ages or different times of the year. In Victorian times people used to keep newts as pets, which wasn’t very clever as they would instinctively leave the water and later be found shrivelled and dead in the corner of the room. It’s good to see the considerate way in which the Smooth Newt in the video is being handled, and of course at the moment it is against the law to disturb Great Crested Newts and their habitats. Thanks to Gordon (of Haycock & Jay, the Otley ecologists) for quickly spotting our mistake, and again to Sophie Snell for sending the video.

Photo by Sophie Snell

STARLING - 27 July 2020

These gregarious birds used to be much more common, and I miss the daily sight of huge flocks returning from a day’s foraging in the surrounding countryside to roost in the warmth of city-centre Bradford, for example. Murmurations of Starlings are one of nature’s most spectacular sights: thousands of birds flocking effortlessly, with smaller flocks blending together and creating swirling, complex patterns in the sky. At a distance, a Starling looks black, but the closer you get, the more you notice the speckles of white, and a kind of metallic sheen of greens and purples. They are fantastic mimics – I heard one in my garden doing an accurate copy of a ringtone – and studies have shown that there are local dialects of mimicked sounds. The diverse sounds of a singing male were aptly described in a recent Yorkshire Wildlife Trust magazine as “a full English breakfast being cooked in a frying pan – spitting, popping and bubbling sounds”. Their complex vocalizations have made them the subject of research into the evolution of human language.

Photo by Pixabay

HONEYSUCKLE - 26 July 2020

To look at, the flowers lack the immaculate symmetry of many – they’re a bit of a mess – but oh, the smell…. The strong, sweet fragrance intensifies as the day goes on, peaking in the evening, when it attracts moths. Pollinators love them, and a range of wildlife eats the berries (we shouldn’t!). There are roughly 180 different species of this twining climber, and around Otley it can be seen in gardens and growing wild. I think I’m right in saying that it is an indicator species of ancient woodland ie areas continuously wooded since at least 1600.

Photo by Pixabay


Otley resident Emma Dunnett spotted one of these caterpillars in her garden, and my first reaction was “Wow”. They are positively spectacular, looking like something a child might design on a computer – they just don’t look real. As well as the exotic appearance of the caterpillar, and a great name, there is also an astonishing difference between the appearance of the male and the female adults. The male looks like your average moth, with orangey brown wings and a couple of “eye” spots. The female looks nothing like him, being virtually wing-less and unable to fly. She is mostly made up of a huge, swollen abdomen, and spends her brief adult life clinging to her cocoon. The male doesn’t live long either – neither of them eat – the moth over-winters in its egg stage. Nature, eh?

Photo by Ann Riley

JACKDAW - 22 July 2020

I associate their distinctive clacking with visits to ancient buildings and ruins, but these sociable birds also contribute to the soundscape here in Otley. They like to nest in chimney pots – one of their many alternative names is Chimney Sweep Bird - and one once fell down into the open fireplace in our bedroom. An ancient Greek saying suggests “The swans will sing when the jackdaws are silent” ie the wise will speak after the foolish have become quiet. Despite this, they are intelligent birds, like the other members of the Corvid family. They have complex social structures and have been seen using tools. Jackdaws are monogamous. Look closely and you can see a distinctive pale grey iris and a slight purple or bluish tinge to their cap. Collective nouns include a clattering and a train.

Photo by Pixabay


For the last couple of days I have headed down to Gallows Hill in the evening and first thing in the morning to catch sight of bats foraging over the ponds and experience the undisturbed wildlife before the dogs arrive. Whilst walking past the nettle beds I disturbed some Small Tortoiseshells, they flutter ahead just a few feet and settle again in my path, meaning they have to get up and move again in a few minutes when I pass them again. The Big Butterfly Count starts again today, so why not take 15 minutes to sit overlooking a sunny spot and count how many butterflies you see. You can download an ID chart here, then simply add your records by downloading their app or input them online.

By River Six

SPEAR THISTLE - 14 July 2020

Like the bramble flowers, spear (also known as bull or common) thistles are at their most brilliant right now and are a welcome pop of colour among the many shades of green. Spear thistles can grow to be 1 to 1.5 metres and prefer to be in full sun, you might spot them sprouting in the middle of paddocks or fields, as well as along the sides of the road. Whilst walking around Gallows Hill, I was frequently interrupted by visitors to their purple, fluffy flower heads. Many of them were hoverflies and wasps but then a beautiful small copper butterfly fluttered in and sat down for the briefest moment, they are an important source of nectar at this time of year. And when they are finished flowering the seeds are favoured snacks for spectacular goldfinches.

By River Six

WOOD PIGEON - 13 July 2020

Whilst many of our other common birds breeding efforts are restricted to the Spring, the wood pigeon breeds in Otley 10 months out of 12! Breeding from February to November and taking a little Christmas and New Year break. It is fairly easy to spot these large birds at it, as I did today at Wharfemeadows park. The male starts to display with his familiar drawn out 5 syllable coo, then performs a display flight, fluttering around the female and if she is suitably impressed, she’ll present. For this reason and that they are generalist eaters, they are one of the most numerous wild birds in Britain, with a population estimated at around 2.5 million pairs.

By River Six

7-SPOT LADYBIRD - 9 July 2020

Whilst out exploring our town, as well as looking up to spot passing birds, I am also looking down to spot passing invertebrates, in fact I am often looking anyway but where I am walking! In the long grass and patches of wild flowers, little ruby red specks catch my eye. They are our most familiar ladybird, the 7-spot. They are occasionally yellow but always have 7 black spots, with 3 on each wing case and 1 at the back sitting across the two wings. Amazingly the 7-spot ladybird is a migratory species: large numbers fly in from the continent every spring, boosting our native population and to feed on the glut of aphids appearing everywhere at this time of year. An introduced alien species of ladybird, the harlequin is bad news for a native ladybirds, as well as munching on aphids they also eat the larva of other ladybirds, including the 7-spot. The harlequins will also eat and outcompete the adult 2-spot ladybirds.

By River Six

BULLFINCH - 8 July 2020

After lunch, I had planned to go out for a walk but the rain decided to return. I took a look out of my living room window to see who was around and perched in the laurel outside, a few feet away was a magnificent male bullfinch, waiting out the rain just like me. Bullfinches are quiet birds, quieter than our other local finches and they like to hide. Their short stubby beaks are perfectly adapted for feeding on buds, which they are very enthusiastic about, particular favourites are pear and cherry buds. This doesn’t make them very popular with orchard owners I am afraid. They form very strong pair bonds no matter what time of year, if you see one, you will likely always see the other. Bullfinches were once popular caged birds, fortunately that trend has died out and the Bullfinch is allowed to live as it should in the wild.

By River Six

BRAMBLE (flowers) - 7 July 2020

Walking up the Chevin today, I couldn’t walk more than a few feet without being distracted by the amount of insect activity around the white and pink flowers of bramble. Its flowers provide much needed nectar and pollen now that the spring blooms have faded. So many of our pollinators rely on bramble now, including bumblebees, honey bees, hoverflies, wasps, butterflies, moths, flies and lacewings. Cunning spiders often spin webs in and around bramble to catch some of the bounty of visitors. Incredibly there are over 320 microspecies of what we call bramble, there’s so much to learn about it in fact there’s a name for the discipline of just studying bramble: batology. When the flowers of the bramble finally fade in the autumn, its other common name, the blackberry bush, becomes very evident and its value to wildlife keeps going!

By River Six

DUNNOCK - 6 July 2020

The birds have gone quiet, this is not because lockdown is easing and we’re scaring them all away! After all the raucous calls and songs of spring, many of our songbird’s chicks have fledged their nests now. So it’s time for a change of strategy, the adults lead the juveniles to forage and fatten up under the cover of thick hedges and undergrowth. Accompanied by their weaker juveniles, it wouldn’t be a good idea to draw attention to themselves, so to prevent predators finding them the adults don’t sing. If you feed the birds in your garden you will still be getting regular visitors and on the ground clearing up the mess the perched birds have made, you will likely find blackbirds and dunnocks. Unlike most birds dunnocks do not breed in pairs but instead form groups of up to 3 males and 3 females, with 2 males and 1 female being the most common. This unconventional family set up outraged early Victorian naturalists, many of them priests.

By River Six

GARDEN SNAIL - 3 July 2020

During the short spell of dry weather today, my walk was interrupted with a crunch underfoot. Looking down the path ahead of me, I discovered a crowd of more than twenty Garden snails. Snails love dampness, so after all of this rain, they suddenly seem to be everywhere along with their slug cousins. Amongst our wildlife in Otley, they are hard to love, especially if you happen to be a gardener as well as a wildlife lover. They are an important part however of our natural ecosystem, they provide food for all sorts of other wildlife, Thrushes in particular love them! Another Garden snail muncher is the adorable Hedgehog, who don’t like eating the slime, so will use their paws to scrape off the slime before gobbling them up! Sadly British Gardeners use unto 650 billion slug pellets a year, this poison enters the food chain and is deadly to our Thrushes and Hedgehogs, so please find an alternative.

By River Six

MARMALADE FLY - 2 July 2020

Sadly the marmalade fly didn’t get its name for being the equivalent of Paddington Bear! It is because of its lovely marmalade colour. It is one of the few hoverflies in the UK with an English name (rather than only being referred to as its latin name). This is because it is a very common hoverfly, that can easily be seen in gardens, parks and sunny woodlands. As adults, they feed on nectar from wild plants such as tansy, ragwort and cow parsley. They are really useful friends un the garden though because their larvae are ferocious predators of those pesky aphids.

By River Six

ZEBRA SPIDER - 30 June 2020

This cute little jumping spider was on our patio, but we have seen them inside the house on the bathroom windowsill. We don’t need to worry about cobwebs, though, because cat-like they stalk their prey, with two big front-facing eyes, before pouncing. They have eight eyes altogether. Their diet consists of even smaller spiders and insects, though they sometimes take creatures up to three times their size. The male’s courtship dance involves it waving its pedipalps (front appendages exclusive to males) and moving its abdomen up and down.

Photo by Ann Riley

COMMON BUZZARD - 28 June 2020

Whilst not as ubiquitous as the Kite, these birds of prey are much more common in the skies above Otley than they used to be. They are often to be seen being mobbed by Crows, especially during the breeding season. Although we are most likely to see them effortlessly riding the thermals, they often hunt for small mammals from a perch – there’s one that sits on the fence by the A59 east of Harrogate, oblivious to the traffic. Their calls often seem to be used by film and TV producers to signify a wilderness-type scene.

FOX - 27 June 2020

Whilst out walking along Birdcage Walk at dusk, I spotted a fox eating some supplementary food left out for horses (the second picture below). Foxes are most active at dusk and during the night, searching alone for food. They tend to live in family groups of one dog, one vixen and her cubs, with a few additional female helpers from previous litters. When dusk arrives however it’s every fox for themselves, whilst out alone foraging, the adults will try and eat almost anything they can find. Including insects, earthworms, fruit, berries, birds, small mammals, carrion and scraps left by humans.

By River Six


One of these settled on our gate in the sun. They feed mostly on honeydew in the tree tops, and rarely on flowers. Honeydew is a sugar-rich, sticky liquid secreted by aphids as they feed on plant sap. Northern butterflies are larger because they need bigger wings for thermoregulation. There has been an extraordinary increase in the UK numbers of Speckled Woods due to climate change.

JAY - 25 June 2020

A beautiful bird with an ugly screech of a call, I seem to see more of them around these days, particularly in the woods on the Chevin. They are very intelligent, like the other members of the Corvid family, and viewers of Springwatch will have seen they have a remarkable capacity for mimicry, even imitating birds they cannot have heard for several months. They bury thousands of acorns in the autumn, for retrieval over the winter, and have a special gullet capable of carrying up to 5 acorns at a time. Now the midsummer equinox has passed, birds’ sex organs start to shrink, and males start to lose their bright feathers (most birds moult to replace worn-out feathers with strong ones ready for winter or migration). In July and August many birds are quiet and hidden as they are vulnerable due to this moult. Some birds’ brains are bigger in Spring, too – they need to be in top form.


There are loads of these on the riverbank path between Gallows Hill and Knotford Nook, but they can turn up in your Otley garden, even if you don’t have a pond. The females are often paler, but sometimes don’t look like the male at all, so that they aren’t too vulnerable when they fly near the water for reproduction. The male is a pinky brown when he first emerges – it takes him a few days to acquire his brilliant blue hue. The bulk of their lives, though, is spent at the larval stage in the water, and they are sensitive to pesticides there that have drained off the fields.

DIPPER - 23 June 2020

Another of my favourite birds (how many are you allowed?!). When they’re not bobbing up and down in the manner that gave them their name, watch them walk down a rock and under the water of the Wharfe in search of invertebrates. They’re chunky, and not the most graceful in flight, as their wings are designed for swimming, but they’ve got bags of character. They have strong focus muscles in their eyes, so that they can change the curvature of the lens to improve underwater vision, and strong legs and feet so that they don’t get washed away. They have more haemoglobin in their blood than other birds so that they can better store oxygen and stay underwater longer. Their nostrils have flaps to stop water entering, and they have a large preen gland to help waterproof their feathers. I tend to think that their bright white chest gives them away, but it may be to aid communication or to help them blend in with the white water of the fast, shallow rivers they frequent.


We saw dozens of these this morning on our walk east of Otley along the old railway track. In the fields beyond, they flew up from the grass in front of us, their colouring subtle browns with defensive eye spots and sometimes a splash of washed-out orange. Meadow Browns will fly in dull weather, when other butterflies are inactive. They are known to have many subspecies, with very subtle differences.


A different tone for today’s post: this invasive species is a significant problem around Otley. On the face of it, there’s a lot to like about it: pollinators like the flowers, lots of people like the smell, and the pink colour is not unattractive. Alternative names include Policeman’s Helmet, Bobby Tops, and Gnome’s Hatstand. But it has a tendency to take over and reduce biodiversity, swamping other species. This is partly due to its extremely effective seed dispersal method – an explosive pod that admittedly is quite fun to trigger. Fortunately, it’s really easy and very satisfying to pull up, having short roots – children can do it. On one of our Chevin routes we stop each time to spend 5 or 10 minutes at the same spot, pulling up the Balsam. We’re never going to eradicate it, even if we wanted to, but if lots of us chip away at it we can make a difference. If you are tempted, work away at the edges rather than creating a hole which will quickly be repopulated. Heap the pulled plants up, as they can re-root, and the heap will form a habitat for invertebrates etc. Also, a neat pile doesn’t wind up those people who like their countryside “tidy”. Now is the time to do the picking, before the seeds form later in the summer. The second photo shows what they look like now.

RED KITE - 19 June 2020

Regular exposure to these magnificent birds hasn’t dimmed the awe they inspire in me. I once dragged my family over a hundred miles to see some in the Welsh mountains, they were so rare, now I see them from my bed. Long ago they were common, even in urban settings, and regarded positively because they kept the streets clean of carrion and rotting food. But then the Tudors classified them as vermin, seeing them as competition for the produce of the countryside, and with rewards offered for their carcasses their numbers started to fall, until eventually they were extinct in England. A welcome conservation success story since being re-introduced from Harewood in 1999, their territorial expansion continues. When the sun catches their plumage at this time of year as they effortlessly ride a thermal, they’re quite spectacular. They nest in at least two woods around Otley. Although they eat a lot of carrion – mostly small mammals and birds – they also catch live animals, including earthworms. The name Kite was used for the bird long before it was used for the toy. Shakespeare made reference to the birds stealing washing from clothes lines for their nests.


This remarkable name derives from their defensive mechanism: they squirt foul-tasting red drops from their mouths when threatened. This liquid is hemolymph, which circulates blood-like in the bodies of invertebrates. The beetles release it by breaking membranes in their mouth. They are flightless and largely nocturnal. Another name is Blood Spewer.

WESTERN HEMLOCK - 17 June 2020

A native of North America’s west coast, the one I saw was in the Holbeck Wood on the Chevin. What drew me to this tall conifer was the new, pale-green growth at the end of the branches, which made it look a bit like they had been decorated. It is a very shade-tolerant tree, with young ones growing under the canopy of other trees and able to wait years for the chance to exploit a gap. The wood is used for the production of paper, doors and furniture; and the Native Americans of Alaska would eat the cambium (a layer of the bark), either as fresh shavings or dried and pressed into bread. They would also use a bough to collect herring eggs, which gave them a distinctive taste.

LIME HAWK MOTH - 16 June 2020

This moth only flies on warm nights between May and July, but can be found resting on walls, tree trunks and lime tree foliage. The adult lives for about 5 weeks. Where there’s a lime (linden) tree in Otley, I suspect there will be Lime Hawkmoths. The lime tree is the favourite food of their caterpillars.

By River Six

GREENFINCH - 15 June 2020

Not as frequent a visitor to the gardens of Otley as it used to be, due to the effect of a deadly parasite that jumped from pigeons in 2005. The BTO estimate half a million Greenfinches died as a result in 2006 alone, though the population is now recovering. We can help here by maintaining good bird table hygiene. The male is a handsome, brightly coloured bird, especially at this time of year. The females build the nests, incubate the eggs and brood the young. Wordsworth wrote a poem about the bird, though he called it the Green Linnet. English settlers introduced Greenfinches to Australia and New Zealand to remind them of home. In Malta they are considered a prestigious songbird and as a result trapped and domesticated.

ELDER - 13 June 2020

We’re making “elderflower champagne” soon, and later in the year people will use the elderberries to make wine. Historically there have been many medicinal claims made for parts of this plant, but you need to be careful as they can be poisonous uncooked. Juice from the berries is a deep blue-purple, and it is used to colour both food and fabrics. The twigs are easy to hollow out – we used to make jewellery with the kids this way – but apparently in North America they are also used as spiles to tap maple trees for syrup. JK Rowling has said that the final book in the Harry Potter series was nearly called “Harry Potter and the Elder Wand”. The bushes are common around Otley, and because it grows quickly, and can easily be bent into shape, it is known as something of an “instant hedge.”

DRONEFLY - 12 June 2020

The Drone Fly is very common around Otley, this time of year. It is an accomplished honeybee mimic, with brown and orange markings, but is completely harmless. This mimicry helps to protect it from predators while it searches for nectar in our parks and gardens. Interestingly the drone fly not only looks like the honey bee but also mimics the way it flies.

By River Six

WREN - 11 June 2020

This very small bird makes a very big noise – a scolding torrent of up to 740 notes a minute. An ancient fable crowned it the king of birds, an idea which persists in Germany, where its name translates as King of the Hedge, and the Netherlands, where it is known as the Winter King. It has a memorable latin name, too - Troglodytes Troglodytes – though the Otley Wrens typically live in woods, gardens and hedgerows rather than caves. Male wrens will build several nests themselves, with the female then choosing the one to be used. In parts of Ireland, Boxing Day is celebrated as Wren Day, with processions behind a decorative pole with a wren on top. This is believed to originate from the day being St Stephen’s Day, and the story has it that St Stephen was betrayed by a noisy Wren when hiding in a hedge. Fortunately, model Wrens are now used rather than the real ones of yore.

DAME'S ROCKET - 10 June 2020

These tall plants are numerous on the north bank of the river to the east of town. Alternative names such as Night Scented Gilliflower and Mother-of-the-evening indicate that their scent becomes stronger as the day goes on. You can see a range of flower colours in a small area: purple, pink, and white. The caterpillars of several butterflies like to eat them, and we can eat the young leaves too – they are high in vitamin C. The seeds are often included in wildflower seed mixes. However, the plant’s highly effective distribution of its numerous seeds can lead to it swamping other species, and in some areas of the US for example it is classified as an invasive pest.


This medium-sized beetle is found all over Otley, in woodland, along hedgerows, and in parks and gardens.

The adults are sun worshippers and can be spotted sitting still on leaves sunbathing. The larvae are harder to find, they are born flattened so they can squeeze underneath the bark of trees and hide, whilst also eating the larvae of smaller insects.

By River Six

MUTE SWAN - 8 June 2020

These popular birds have successfully raised cygnets on the Wharfe, but if you get too close, you’ll see behaviour that contrasts with their usual grace and calm. They are called “Mute” because they are less vocal than other swans, but as well as the aggressive hissing at threats, they make a loud noise with their wings in flight. This is a bit like a foot pump blowing up an airbed, and performs the function of keeping the birds in contact with each other. Combined with their size (one of the heaviest flying birds), and with their long necks straight out in front of them, it makes for an impressive sight. For centuries, Mute Swans were domesticated for food, with ownership being marked by nicks in their webbed feet or beaks, a fact which explains the confusing name of the “Swan With Two Necks” pub where I used to drink as a student in Woodhouse, Leeds. Non-marked swans belonged to the Queen. Ironically, this domestication may well have prevented the extinction of the bird in Britain through over-hunting.

ROE DEER - 6 June 2020

This indigenous breed are becoming more numerous and seemingly more confident around Otley. They are almost a rusty red colour at this time of year, with a prominent white rump patch, heart-shaped on the female (doe), kidney shaped on the male (roebuck). This patch is “flashed” as an alarm signal to other deer (a bit like the bobbing white tails of rabbits), along with a noise from the male like a dog’s bark. They are regarded as pests because rather than grazing they feed on the new growth of plants such as trees, causing a lot of damage. This is compounded by their ability to jump surprisingly high fences. They don’t need large areas of woodland to survive, and as a result there are now urban populations living in and around, for example, the cemeteries of Bristol and Glasgow. In the original Austrian version, Bambi was a Roe deer.


You can see this tough member of the pea family along the old railway track to the east of town, but it’s generally quite common. It’s called Bird’s-Foot because of the shape of the seed pods; the Trefoil part refers to the three central leaflets that are prominent above the others. Another name is “Eggs & Bacon”, based on the red and yellow colouring seen as the flowers are opening, and another “Granny’s Toenails”. A fantastic source of nectar for insects, the plant is also used by farmers as quality pasture, hay and silage. Amongst several herbal uses, the flowers are used as a sedative. It can prevent soil erosion, and is planted along roadsides to achieve this effect.

MANDARIN DUCK - 4 June 2020

For some reason I was a bit sniffy about these non-native escapees when I was younger, but now I’m really pleased to see them on the Wharfe. The male’s plumage is nothing short of spectacular – he looks like he originates from some exotic, distant land (actually the Far East) – and it seems incongruous for such a shy bird. The female, as is so often the case, has the practical colours of the partner who has to sit on the nest. Having said that, Mandarins are also unusual ducks in that they nest in holes up in trees. Not long after they have hatched, the mother flies down to the water and encourages the young to jump down and join her and the protective father. A female was spotted the other day in Otley, on the river, with ELEVEN ducklings! In China and Japan Mandarins are seen as a symbol of lifelong fidelity, and in Korea carved wooden Mandarins are often given as a wedding present.

COCKCHAFER - 3 June 2020

This beetle is in a league of its own when it comes to unusual names. It’s also known as a Doodlebug, Humbuz, Chovy, Dumbledarey, Kittywitch, Snartlegog and Bummler – names Roald Dahl himself would have been proud to create. It was nearly eradicated in the 20th century, but pesticide regulation in the 1980’s led to a revival, and the one in the first picture was spotted in an Otley garden. They have had a complex relationship with mankind down the centuries: serious agricultural and forestry pest, but also food source (eg sugar-coated in 1920’s Germany), children’s toy (eg Victorian England), and put on trial in 14th century France. If you get close enough, you can see distinctive leaf shapes on the antennae.

BUFF TIP MOTH - 2 June 2020

A master of disguise, at rest this distinctive moth resembles a broken birch twig in colour, size and shape. Conversely, the caterpillar is a bit easier to spot, being big, hairy, with black and yellow stripes. The first photo below shows one that recently pupated in amongst a wildflower patch in an Otley garden.

BULLFINCH - 1 June 2020

If you hear a sad, simple whistle – “pewww” - from the trees down at Gallows Hill, it’s worth taking some time to look for a pair of these beautiful birds. The male has a gorgeous deep pink chest, but the female’s subtle brown is attractive. Both have a sooty black cap, and in flight a noticeably white rump. The “bull” name is presumably a reference to their head shape. For centuries, their taste for the buds of fruit trees led to a bounty being offered for every one killed.

HEDGEHOG - 31 May 2020

One of the most popular visitors to Otley’s gardens, and not just with gardeners battling with slugs and snails. For a wild animal they’re relatively bold. Last night one was spotted drinking gratefully from a shallow bowl of water left out for thirsty wildlife in this dry spell. It’s believed that when threatened by cars significant numbers are now runners rather than rollers, and if they survive other threats (habitat and food loss), evolution will reduce the numbers squashed on our roads. It is a big “if,” of course.


These literally brilliant damselflies are generally found near slow-moving streams and rivers, but could rock up in your Otley garden, like one of those below. The male is metallic blue and the female metallic green. Damselflies differ from dragonflies in that they have identical wings that they hold up together at rest, whilst dragonflies have two differing sets which they hold open and down. Female Demoiselles lay their eggs by injecting them into plant stems below the surface of the water. The larvae take two years to develop, overwintering in the mud at the bottom of the water.

CINNEBAR MOTH - 29 May 2020

These guys are described as common moths but catching sight of this striking red and black moth is something special.

They fly by day and night. Feeding and resting in messy patches of grass and wastelands but are easily disturbed fluttering up into the sunshine. Their caterpillars depend on the leaves and flowers of the gardeners enemy of Common Ragwort.

By River Six

WELSH POPPY - 28 May 2020

With orange or yellow flowers, these plants have self-seeded all around our garden and throughout Otley. They are native of the damp, rocky uplands of Wales and south-west England, and their success elsewhere has been a bit of a puzzle. They are slow to spread in their ancestral habitats, but with no apparent changes to their botanical constitution have readily established themselves in a variety of habitats throughout the UK. The Welsh Poppy is popular with pollinators.

GOLDFINCH - 27 May 2020

So many species are suffering serious existential threats that it’s nice to hear success stories. Goldfinch numbers are rising, and these colourful, busy birds can be seen all over Otley, usually in a gang. The collective noun is appropriately a “charm”. Nests are built entirely by the females, often at the end of a swaying branch, to which the twigs are attached with spider silk. Nest design is relatively deep to prevent eggs being lost in windy weather. Poet Patrick Kavanagh describes the goldfinch as a rare glimpse of beauty in the life of an elderly Irish farmer:

The goldfinches on the railway paling were worth looking at

A man might imagine then

Himself in Brazil and these birds the birds of paradise

Incidentally, one of the RSPB’s first campaigns was against the caged Goldfinch trade.

COMMON BLUE - 26 May 2020

Perhaps not the perfect name: it’s not that frequently seen in Otley – it’s more that it’s the most widespread of the British blues – and the female can be quite brown. The caterpillar has the classic green with yellow stripes colouring. They secrete a sugar-rich liquid called honeydew, which ants like to eat, in return for which they offer protection, sometimes even dragging a chrysalis into their nest.

HERB ROBERT - 25 May 2020

There are many medicinal claims made for this common member of the Cranesbill family, including as a cure for diarrhoea. It is believed to be named after Robert of Molesme, a herbalist and one of the founders of the Cistercian Order of monks. Crush its leaves and you get an unpleasant smell that gives rise to an alternative name: Stinking Bob. Other names include Storksbill and Death Come Quickly.

LAPWING - 24 May 2020

At the moment I’m seeing these fantastic birds between Otley and Leathley, and on the south side of the Chevin, but I used to see so many more. There used to be a flock near the airport on land now built over, and nationally their numbers have fallen dramatically since changes in agricultural practices in the 1970’s. The Lapwing name refers to their unusual wing shape, or maybe their method of protecting their vulnerable nests on the ground. The adult feigns a wing injury to lure, for example, a fox away from the eggs or young, suddenly flying up when at a safe distance. The collective noun is a deceit. Another name for Lapwing is Peewit, which derives from their unusual call, heard during their tumbling display flight.


This has to be my favourite moth, they are fairly common in the parks and gardens of Otley but quite hard to spot, which is hard to believe given how colourful they are! Their visible fur is golden-olive with bright pink bars on the wings and body. Like a lot of moths they are nocturnal, waking up at dusk to start feeding from honeysuckle and other tubular flowers on the wing.

by River Six

HORSE CHESTNUT - 22 May 2020

The nation’s Horse Chestnut trees are under serious attack from a disease called Bleeding Canker, so it’s been good to see the candle-like blossoms flourishing on the trees in the “Conker Park” next to Grosvenor Terrace. The bees will have been pleased, too, in their search for nectar and pollen. Once pollinated, the blossom gets its pink tinge, which alerts insects to not waste their time and energy on them. These chestnuts are so called because of the horseshoe-shaped marks on their twigs where the leaves fall off. During both world wars the government asked people to collect conkers to assist in the production of the explosive cordite, which requires starch. The trees also had a role in the development of the beer garden: in Germany they were planted over beer cellars because their canopies provided good shade, and their shallow roots didn’t threaten the cellars. In time beer came to be served in these gardens.

BLUE TIT - 21 May 2020

In my first bird book – a well-thumbed Observer’s Book of British Birds – it was charmingly named the Blue Titmouse or Tom Tit, and accurately described as “a very popular little acrobat”. In 2011 the RSPB estimated there were 3.5 million breeding pairs in the UK, and when not nesting in holes in trees they are keen on the nestboxes we provide. Apparently, if your foolish enough to poke a finger through the nestbox hole, an incubating female will hiss and bite at it, giving rise to the nickname “Little Billy Biter” in the south-west of England. The photo shows a brood in an Otley nestbox (consider getting a nest-cam – they’re not as expensive as they used to be). Parent birds have to work extremely hard, and it has been calculated that it’s not unusual for each one to bring food at a peak rate of once every 90 seconds. Much of that food will be caterpillars, and unfortunately this means the species is vulnerable to the bad weather that reduces caterpillar numbers. Adults eat a lot of aphids, and also learned to drink the cream from our doorstep bottles, though I haven’t seen that happen to ours in a long time.


As the Wildlife Trusts’ website says, “as the Bluebells fade, Yellow Archangel takes its turn to impress”. You’ll find them in the woods and hedgerows around Otley, looking like a nettle but with hooded, yellow flowers. The Archangel tag may well come from the fact that they are in the nettle family but do not sting. I like the colloquial name “Yellow Weasel Snout”.

COMMON MAYFLY - 19 May 2020

I spotted a Mayfly over the riverbank, near the confluence of the Wharfe and the Washburn. Their up-and-down flight pattern is quite distinctive, as is their body shape. Their life structure is famously unusual, with the nymph living sometimes for years in the water, then the adult only surviving for hours. There are many references to this brevity in literature. Mayflies are in the same ancient family as dragonflies and damselflies, and it’s believed they have the characteristics of the first flying insects: long tails and wings that don’t fold flat over their abdomen. They are definitely unique in the insect world in having a pre-adult stage with wings, that then undergoes a further moult. Many fish love to eat them, but their relatively high protein content means they are eaten by people too in several cultures.


We saw this large, colourful bird near the old railway line to the west of town. As well as a vibrant green you see a strong yellow and a flash of red. They don’t actually do as much wood-pecking as our other woodpeckers, preferring to eat ants and other bugs on the ground, using their very long tongues (10cm!). As with other woodpeckers, these are coiled up inside their skull when not in use. Their call is a remarkable laughing-like noise, which gives rise to their colloquial name of “Yaffle”. It is also incongruously loud for a shy bird. It used to be thought they had the ability to summon rain, resulting in their being called Rain Bird and Wet Bird, but I’m not sure what led to the alias Nicker Pecker. They can be monogamous for life, but live alone outside the breeding season.

BUFF TAILED BEE - 17 May 2020

One of our most common bees, their ability to forage at very long distances has made them a little more resilient to the negative environmental factors that are damaging our bee populations. I saw this one on some Green Alkanet at Knotford. It's not easy distinguishing the Buff Tail from a White Tailed Bumblebee, but the yellow bands tend to be a bit darker. Like honeybees, bumblebees are eusocial, which means they live in complex societies with several generations in the nest at the same time, a strict division of labour, and co-operative care of the young. Buff Tailed Bumblebees are unusual in that the workers vary enormously in size: from 68 to 754mg. They are all female; on reaching adulthood males (drones) leave the colony to find a mate from another nest - mating is their sole role. Another thing bumblebees have in common with honey bees is their innate preference for blue or yellow flowers. In the photo you can see the pollen sacs on the back legs.


It flew so near me I could hear its wingbeats. As dusk drew in it was hunting insects, flitting expertly in and out of the kitchen/bathroom extensions along our terrace. The Pipistrelle is the smallest UK bat, with the weight of a 2p coin, and our most common, but one can eat three thousand flies in a night. Females give birth to a single pup up to 30% their bodyweight – if my maths is right, the human equivalent would be a 50lb baby! They take very young pups with them when they go out hunting. There is a colony of Daubenton's bats below the central arch of Otley Bridge, and a huge maternity colony of between 300 and 400 bats at the back of an Otley school. The photos below were taken by West Yorkshire Bat Hospital and show two rescued Pipistrelles that were later released in Otley. It must be remembered that bats are a protected species and should only be handled if they are grounded and in need of help, and then only in accordance with the advice of Bat Conservation Trust:

WILD GARLIC - 11 May 2020

I don't remember a better year for Wild Garlic - it seems to be really flourishing around Otley, competing with the Bluebells for aromatic supremacy in our woodlands. Also known as Ramsons or Bear Leek, in other countries bears and boars will dig up the bulbs to eat, and the leaves are used as cattle fodder, resulting in milk with a garlic tang. The bulbs, flowers and leaves are all edible to us - see below for a recipe using the latter instead of basil in pesto.


We saw these small, shiny, carnivorous insects swimming in their crazy circles on the surface of one of the Gallows Hill ponds. Apparently this movement is defensive, and they can dive down below their usual habitat if further disturbed, trapping a bubble of air to take with them. When on the surface, their divided eyes enable them to see above and below the water level simultaneously, which is pretty cool. Their waxy, water-repellent skin makes them difficult to catch, and the males have suckers on their front legs to help them hold on to the slippery female during mating. Studies of their fascinating, complex group movement dynamics are hoped to give insights into how groups of robots might operate together.

HAWTHORN - 9 May 2020

Flowering now, in a hedge near you, living up to its other name: Maythorn. Monty Don makes some interesting points about this timing in the link below. There are some spectacular ones to be seen around Otley. My photos were taken on the opposite sides of the Wharfe to the east of town. The blossom gives off a strong scent, which is not to everyone's taste - it used to be thought unlucky due to its resemblance to Plague. On the other hand, many trees and hedges survived because farmers considered them unlucky to fell. The young leaves are edible. My mum tells me that in 1930's County Durham they were referred to as "bread and cheese", though this doesn't relate to the taste. The dark red haws are an important winter food source for birds.

SWIFTS - 8 May 2020

When it comes to flight, the Swift makes a lot of birds look like chickens. Not only does it fly thousands of miles to spend a few months in Otley, and over 3 million miles in its lifetime, but it sleeps on the wing too. They only land for breeding, so having fledged, a young Swift may well spend the next 2 to 3 years in the air. As I write, a group of Swifts hunts noisily for insects high in the blue sky - a "screaming party" this is called. In a normal year, Otley Swift Watch would be meticulously touring the town's older buildings, checking nesting sites up in the eaves and hoping to see a reversal in the national downward trend in Swift numbers. Further afield, a suburban street in north Leeds is a veritable Swift stronghold thanks to the work of one man - check out the link below. The second link takes you to the work of Leeds artist Janis Goodman, who expertly captures the flight of this amazing bird in works such as "Happy Returns".

BEECH - 7 May 2020

The limbs of these mature trees on Birdcage Walk or in Great Dib Wood throw some dramatic shapes - they're simply magnificent. Their foliage is just one part of the varied palette of gorgeous greens on the spring Chevin as you look up from town. I like the beech even more now I know how it will defend itself and alert other trees when under attack. Apparently the saliva of deer stimulates the production of foul-tasting tannin in the leaves; furthermore, it will prompt similar responses in other trees by sending messages via its roots and fungal chords below ground - a "wood wide web" of communication. For more on plant "neurobiology" check out the link to the work of Stefano Mancuso below. Then there's the Copper Beech with its distinctive leaves: my favourite is at the north end of the White Bridge, but there's one in the cemetery whose twisted trunk is like a Freud nude with its curves, twists and bulges.

KINGFISHER - 6 May 2020

Its spectacular plumage can seem a bit out of place against the dark waters of the Wharfe, but even so, a Kingfisher can be tricky to spot on its fishing perch. Listen out for its high-pitched whistling for a clue as to its whereabouts. It's not just the iridescent blue of its wings and head that is gobsmacking - "an azure jewel burning" - the chestnut of its chest is beautiful, too. Incredibly, this colouring is not due to pigment in the feathers, but to their structure, which scatters blue light.

DANDELIONS - 5 May 2020

Lots of gardeners curse them, and goodness knows I've had some battles with those growing between our paving stones. But as it flowers from early spring until the Autumn, the Dandelion really is the pollinator's best friend, and perhaps we should try to leave some in our gardens for the bees, butterflies, moths and beetles. Goldfinches and House Sparrows love the seeds, too. The name derives from the French "dent de lion" or lion's tooth, a reference to the leaf shape, though I expect you know a name or two that refers to those leaves' diuretic effect. If you don't eat too many of them, though, they are a good source of vitamins and anti-oxidants.

MINT MOTH - 4 May 2020

One of these small, delicate moths was on our kitchen window, handily-placed for our herb garden below, where its caterpillars will also eat Marjoram and Thyme. I identified it mainly by the golden spots on its brown/maroon wings, though these yellow markings vary and can sometimes be completely absent, just to confuse part-time lepidopterists like myself. It flies both at night and during the day. Better distinctions between butterflies and moths are that the former rest with their wings closed, and that they have long, thin antennae, as opposed to the short, feathery ones of moths.

SONGTHRUSH - 3 May 2020

Usually a star of the RSPB's #dawnchorusday, this bird can often be heard at Gallows Hill. Its beautiful song consists of repeated phrases, interspersed with grating sounds and mimicry. One bird can have a repertoire of as many as 100 phrases, many copied from its parents and neighbouring birds, and the mimicry may include man-made objects like phones. Their melodious voices led to them being kept as pets until at least the nineteenth century, and people still eat them in Spain. More positively, they have inspired poets such as Wordsworth, Browning and Hughes. One colloquial name is a Mavis, another a Throstle, and I am told Song Thrushes can still be seen and heard around Otley's Throstle Nest Close.

BLUEBELLS - 2 May 2020

May always used to be the Bluebell month, but with climate change we have seen them around Otley for several weeks. As well as creating an attractive carpet of blue in the woods, they also have a strong, sweet fragrance. For the full assault on your senses try Middleton Woods around Curly Hill (maybe after Lockdown). Half the world's Bluebells are here in the UK, and they are a common indicator species for ancient woodlands. However some that you see around Wharfedale will be garden escapees: Spanish Bluebells - the native ones are more delicate, a deeper blue, a little droopy and have the sweet scent. To complicate matters, there are lots of hybrids around now, too. The tough Spanish versions tend to out-compete the native ones, which also go by the names Wild Hyacinth, Cuckoo's Boots, Lady's Nightcap and Witches' Thimbles. Bluebell is one of the words highlighted in the brilliant book "Lost Words" by MacFarlane & Morris.

MARTINS - 1 May 2020

Yes, we're finishing "Bird Week" with two for the price of one. House Martins are attending nests in Albion Street, and Sand Martins can be seen hunting insects above the Wharfe upstream from Wharfebank Mills.

House Martins are distinguishable from Swallows by their white rump and preference for urban settings, where they often nest under eaves. They also typically feed at higher altitudes than Swallows and so don't compete. Young from a first brood will sometimes help feed the second, an unusual occurrence in the bird world.

Sand Martins are a similar shape, but brown instead of black, and lacking the white rump. Similarly sociable, they nest in colonies in sandy riverbanks and cliffs, digging burrows up to a metre in length. There used to be such a colony on the Wharfe just downstream from Gallows Hill.

WILLOW WARBLER - 30 April 2020

Another summer visitor with a somewhat nondescript appearance but a distinctive call - I've seen it accurately described as a "wistfully descending cadence". In late summer these birds, (including juveniles only a few months old), travel 5,000 miles to spend the winter in Sub-Saharan Africa. Swallows fly even further, to South Africa. Prior to name standardisation in 1843, the Willow Warbler was sometimes called the "Willow Wren". They are unusual in that they moult all their feathers twice a year: once at their breeding ground, then again at their wintering grounds. We don't know why.

SWALLOW - 29 April 2020

Half a dozen were skimming the meadow below Haslinghall farm, hunting for insects, and at times it seemed like they were skimming our heads as they swooped effortlessly around us. I'd actually seen the Kipchoge of the Swallow world on April 6th, but they are here in numbers now, helping to make the summer (despite the weather). I love the way they drink from pools whilst in flight, their bill leaving trails of delicate circles in the water.

GOOSANDER - 28 April 2020

Pairs of these shy, graceful ducks can be spotted on the Wharfe in Otley and east towards Knotford Nook. With the water shallow and clear, I was able to see the male's streamlined body underwater as it dived for fish, but my favourite sight is of the young birds on the mother's back as she swims along. Hopefully we'll get chance to see this in the coming months, when the chicks leave their nests in holes in trees on the riverbank.

My daughter works for the charity WaterAid who are developing an app called FlowTV, highlighting the importance, power and beauty of water. It will feature beautiful soundscapes from rivers around the world where WaterAid work. It is hoped these sounds will prove relaxing, and maybe aid sleep, improve mindfulness or accompany activities such as yoga. A taster can be found here:

BLACKCAP - 27 April 2020

One of the easier warblers to identify by sight, the top of the male Blackcap's head is a sooty black, though as with yesterday's bird (Blackbird), the top of the female's is a chestnut brown. They have a distinctive song, too, and this was how I first spotted the one I saw this morning near Wharfebank Mill. It is attractive enough to have earned it the nickname "the northern Nightingale". As with the Chiffchaff, increasing numbers of what was once only a summer visitor now over-winter here.


A male was soaking up the sunshine with its wings spread downward, an action that maintains the health of its feathers. Over-exposure to what was once Britain's commonest bird has perhaps made us impervious to the beauty of the Blackbird and its melodic song. Whereas most English Blackbirds seldom move any distance from where they hatched, they are joined in the winter by others from northern Europe.


I love the alliterative name, and they're quite striking to look at - with their bright orange abdomens, Mark Cocker describes them as looking like "animate furry fruit bonbons". I saw mine, predictably enough, in amongst the bilberry bushes on the Chevin, where I also saw a Green Hairstreak butterfly. The bees also feed on heather.

CUCKOO FLOWER - 24 April 2020

Cuckoo flower, also known as Lady's Smock has pretty lilac flowers and grows in wet meadows and on riverbanks and roadside verges.

The flowers emerge at the same time as the cuckoo begins to sing, hence its name.

A frothy/foamy substance known as 'cuckoo spit' sometimes appears on cuckooflower. This 'spit' is actually the larvae of the Froghopper, which protects it from predators.

There's a lot of it around Otley at the moment: these photos were taken by the stream at Otley Golf Course and in a local garden.

CURLEWS - 23 April 2020

The haunting call of the Curlew is evocative of the moors and estuaries it inhabits. It is a sound immortalised in the poem "Seafarer", which is at least one thousand years old: "I take my gladness in the …. sound of the Curlew instead of the laughter of men." One of the many ways in which we're lucky here in Otley, is that even when confined to the house we can sometimes see the birds that use the valley as an aerial highway, Curlews amongst them. As well as the distinctive call that gives it its name, the Curlew also has a prominent, long, downward-curved bill.

MARSH MARIGOLD - 22 April 2020

These Buttercup-like plants, with their large flowers and large, rounded leaves, favour damp or wet conditions: they would be ideal in that wildlife-friendly pond you're going to create during lockdown! They are mentioned frequently in literature, for example Shakespeare, Hardy and Charlotte Bronte all make reference. The name derives from "Mary Gold" - they were a tribute to the Virgin Mary in mediaeval churches at Easter. But there are numerous alternative names: Kingcup, Horseblob, Crazy Beth, Water Goggles, Gools, Soldiers' Buttons and Publicans-and-sinners. Use your favourite.

SKYLARK - 21 April 2020

Soaring into the skies above the Chevin and the fields below Farnley Hall, the male skylark shows impressive levels of stamina. It belts out a seemingly non-stop song in its almost vertical ascent to heights of up to 300 metres, alerting potential mates and rivals alike, and inspiring one of Britain's most-loved pieces of music. This crested bird can be hard to spot up there, and unfortunately a change in farming practices in the 1970's has resulted in numbers plummeting.

JACK BY THE HEDGE - 20 April 2020

This name gives a good indication where many of them are found around Otley, but it's also known as Poor Man's Mustard. Its edible leaves can even be found and eaten in the winter, as they contain a natural antifreeze. It is biennial, and its first year leaves are a completely different shape (rosette-like) to the second year's (serrated edges, as in the photo taken today).


A native, sap-sucking insect that derives its name from its distinctive shape. They are no threat to plants. There are more than 30 species of shield bug in Britain, most of them brown. In the US they are known as "Stink Bugs" due to the unpleasant odour they use as a defence.

CHIFFCHAFF - 18 April 2020

Pretty nondescript warbler to look at, but one of the loudest birds around Otley at the moment, with the call that gave it its name. Also capable of incredible endurance: weighing less than a £1 coin, they can fly all the way from Sub-Saharan Africa to spend spring and summer with us. With climate change some now over-winter in Europe.