Flowering trees, spring 2020

In these lockdown days, when short forays into nature are all we can hope for, I have been looking for trees in flower in my local streets and parks, noting some wildflowers too. In Alexandra Park on 8th April the pink Cherry was magnificent. There was also a white one, perhaps a Wild Cherry, and the ornamental Snowy Mespil (Amelanchier lamarckii).

Pink cherry
White cherry
Snowy Mespil

The street trees and shrubs around my home are also doing well. My neighbour’s Wisteria is magnificent this year, as is her dark Lilac, but none of the local Laburnums seem to be blooming well.


On Everest Road, near Coronation Park, there are two young Manna Ashes, which look like ordinary Ash for most of the year, but put out spectacular fluffy flowers in early May.

Manna Ash

I made a special trip up to Eshe Road North on 6th May to look at the Foxglove tree, which had just passed its best.

Foxglove tree

In Victoria Park on 3rd May  I spotted Horse Chestnut, Rowan, Hawthorn (white and red) and the demure blossom of Holly.

Horse Chestnut
Hawthorn, probably the variety ‘Paul’s Scarlet’

The ordinary wildflowers were flourishing due to the “reduced maintenance regime” in all the local parks. Dandelions were running rampant everywhere, while the daisies were in massed carpets. In odd corners were Garlic Mustard, Ragwort and Red Campion.

Red Campion
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Parkgate and the Wirral Way, 8th March 2020

In suburban gardens the Forsythia and Quince are flowering and the Magnolia buds are just bursting. It was a sunny spring-like day, but with ominous clouds over Parkgate.

In the pools on the marsh were Mallard, Black-headed Gulls, Canada Geese, Moorhen, Redshank, Teal and Oystercatchers. A Pied Wagtail flew in near the wall, and a Little Egret flew by, now a common sight at Parkgate. Less common was a Great White Egret, stalking about like a Heron.

A squall blew in from the Welsh side, bringing cold gusts of driving rain, but it went off just as we reached the picnic tables at the Old Baths. After lunch, we took the path to the Wirral Way and walked to Neston.

About twelve Curlew flew up from adjacent field, and passed overhead, calling. At one of the few gaps in the thick hedges we were able to look into a stubble field, which must have had plenty of spilled grain, because there was a flock of Linnets, several Carrion Crows, a Chaffinch, a Mistle Thrush and two male Pheasants. Dunnocks were sitting up high and singing, not skulking in the undergrowth as they usually do, and a succession of Robins sang us along.

Signs of spring flowers were pushing up. Wild Arum and Wild Garlic are just leaves yet, but there were a few early flowers of Hogweed, Cow Parsley and Lesser Periwinkle. The first of the Lesser Celandine were showing their bright yellow blooms.

The best plant of the day was something of a mystery. We spotted several clumps of pale lilac flowers, very low to the ground, rather like crocuses, but the flowers were hooded. There were five or six clumps of these odd flowers, all in the same few yards of verge, but no more anywhere else.

I think it was Purple Toothwort, Lathrea clandestina. It is parasitic on the roots of Willow, Alder and Poplar and likes damp, shady places. It isn’t native, it’s a “neophyte”, and has been in the UK for over a century. Still fairly uncommon, although the Wirral is one if its known haunts. It was not far south of the Brooklands Road bridge, on the east side of the Wirral Way.

We emerged from the path behind the church of St Mary and St Helen, Neston. One grave was planted with Forget-me-Not, which is quite appropriate but we didn’t know what to make of the one planted with Wild Garlic. It made us think of Vampires!

Opposite the bus stop is this wall sign for the Neston Female Society, founded 1814. It seemed appropriate for International Women’s Day.

Public transport details: Bus 487 from Sir Thomas Street at 10.29, arriving Parkgate Donkey Stand at 11.22. Returned on 487 from Neston at 3.44, arriving Liverpool 4.20.

Next few weeks: No more Sunday walks until further notice.

Anyone is welcome to come out with the Sunday Group. It is not strictly part of the MNA, although it has several overlapping members. We go out by public transport to local parks, woods and nature reserves all over Merseyside, and occasionally further afield. We are mostly pensioners, so the day is free on our bus passes, and we enjoy fresh air, a laugh and a joke, a slow amble in pleasant surroundings and sometimes we even look at the wildlife!
If you want to join a Sunday Group walk, pack lunch, a flask, waterproofs, binoculars if you have them, a waterproof pad to sit on if we have to have lunch on the grass or a wet bench (A garden kneeler? A newspaper in a plastic bag?), and wear stout shoes or walking boots. We are usually back in Liverpool City Centre by 4pm at the latest.

If you are interested in the wildlife of the north-west of England and would like to join the walks and coach trips run by the Merseyside Naturalists’ Association, see the main MNA website for details of our programme and how to join us.

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Leeds-Liverpool canal, Bootle to Litherland, 1st March 2020

Yet another named storm – Storm Jorge – but the day was at least sunny even if it was cold and windy. We decided to walk northwards along the canal, with the wind and sun behind us. We would be quite close to the city centre, so our expectations of wildlife weren’t high. Near Bootle is the row of lovely Weeping Willows, that our leader John planted many years ago when he worked for Parks and Gardens. They were heavily pruned a couple of years ago, and still haven’t quite recovered. They need a couple more years yet.

There were nearly 20 Coots under the first bridge, and plenty more all along the canal. Not many Mallards, but single Moorhens on the verge every few yards. There are lots of Canada Geese resident here, too. This group of six were sunning themselves and were so comfortable they didn’t shift even when we walked quite close behind them.

A few flowers were out, including Herb Robert under a fence, occasional Daisies and Dandelions and some Gorse right on the edge of the water. There’s a little nameless park between the canal and Lunt Road, with House Sparrows in the shrubbery, Carrion Crows and Wood Pigeons in the taller trees, Black-headed Gulls on the tarmac and a Robin on the path. There were some Cherry Plum trees still blossoming and all the Goat Willows were bursting out with “pussy willow” flowers.

It was a lovely day, still, quiet and sunny along the sheltered towpath, and almost deserted. Just very occasional dog walkers and one pair of cyclists heading southwards. A nice surprise was a Heron, sitting motionless in the cut reeds on the opposite bank, standing on an old piece of metal plating.

Another unexpected bird was a Cormorant in the shadows under the bridge near Litherland.

We called in at the big Tesco in Litherland for their loos, and had lunch on their windy terrace which overlooks the canal. Then we headed past Litherland Town Hall (now a Health Centre) and into Hatton Hill Park. We haven’t been there before, and there’s not much to see, although a small Quince bush was flowering profusely.

Not far away, in Seaforth, is the old music venue, Lathom Hall, where the early Beatles played several times. Sadly, it closed a couple of years ago. Just by Hatton Hill Park is Black Dog salvage yard, and we spotted the old “hippie” sign that used to be a landmark outside Lathom Hall. It must be 7 or 8 feet tall. If anyone wants it ….

Public transport details: Bus 47 from Queen Square at 10.15, arriving Stanley Road / Bootle New Strand at 10.25. Returned on the 52 bus from Hawthorne Road / Marina Avenue at 1.25, arriving Bootle New Strand at 1.35, where we all changed for other buses.

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Birkenhead Park, 23rd February 2020

Himalayan birch trees near to the Visitors’ Centre

Hallelujah! A day when it wasn’t raining! The sun even came out, although the wind was still chilly. The open fields in the park had unintended ponds, rainwater streamed off the banks in gurgling brooks and the ground was squelchy under the grass. Little lakes obstructed the paths, but the packs of runners splashed through them as if they were steeplechasing. We found that if we stopped to consider a tree, we were soon surrounded by the bolder kinds of wildlife, hoping for food. They must all have been hungry since there can’t have been many visitors to the park during all the recent storms. Pigeons, Mallards and Canada Geese all homed in on us, Grey Squirrels peeked out of the shrubbery and even the Robins became almost tame.

The Daffodils were out, the Flowering Currant was breaking into bloom and the first red Rhododendrons made high splashes of crimson in the dark shrubbery. A small tree by the lake was blossoming, looking a bit like some kind of Crab Apple, and on the bank was a single stalk of a flower head that looked like Betony. Had it struggled through the winter? It had a square stem about a foot long, which seems right.

Flowering currant
Crab apple?

There were Mallards, Coots, Moorhen, Canada Geese, two Muscovy ducks and a Mute Swan family on the lakes. A couple of Cormorants were flying about. There were Carrion Crows high in the trees, and a Jay put in a brief appearance. Blue Tits, Great Tits and Long-tailed Tits were popping around overhead, the loud song from a dark bush turned out to belong to a Song Thrush and two Nuthatches were poking about industriously in the knobbly Black Mulberry. The birds were too quick for me, but here’s the wonderful warty bark.

The male Yew trees were covered with pollen balls, which I have just learned are are properly called strobilii, looking like little Brussels sprouts.

There are lots of Monterey Cypresses near the Swiss bridge, and also a possible Cedar of Lebanon on the opposite bank. We stopped to admire a wonderfully shaped bare tree and guessed from the look of it that it was an Oak. Then we found mounds of dead Oak leaves under it, so our guess was right.

After lunch we crossed into the upper park. They had a banner up announcing the park’s bid to be named a World Heritage Site. You know when you wish you had a marker pen in your pocket to correct spelling and punctuation errors?  How did anyone authorise THAT? (Clues – “publicly” and “its”).

The sticky buds were still developing on most of the Horse Chestnuts, but one bud had broken early and there were a few young leaves unfurling. One Hawthorn was also leafing. Very strange seasons!

Early leafing of Horse Chestnut

Around the upper lake there is a very small Monkey Puzzle, a Strawberry tree and an elegant young Bhutan Pine with its long, soft, 5-in-a-bunch needles and huge curved cones.

One dead tree was covered in small bracket fungi, head to toe right up the trunk.

Along Ashville Road there was a Cherry Plum in flower, which is usually the earliest of the small white blossoms, coming out a week or two before the Blackthorn. Someone has told me that you can positively distinguish it from Blackthorn because the Cherry Plum flowers are stalked. Yes, we noted that they do have stalks, about a quarter of an inch long (6mm). In a week or two we will look at the Blackthorns to see if their little white flowers spring straight from the bark.

The last tree species of note was this clump of five or six very rare Hybrid Strawberry trees Arbutus x andrachnoides on the corner by the Duke Street crossing. It’s a natural cross between the Irish and Grecian Strawberry trees. Like the “ordinary” Strawberry Tree Arbutus unedo, it’s an evergreen and doesn’t look very exciting at this time of year, and could be mistaken for a Holm Oak until you spot its patches of bright red peeling bark.

Public transport details: New Brighton train at 10.18 from Lime Street lower level, arriving Birkenhead Park station 10.30.  Returned on the train from Birkenhead Park station at 2.21, arriving Liverpool just after 2.30.  

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Sudley House, 16th February 2020

Even though we were in the middle of Storm Dennis, it was dry and mild, if a bit gusty. We got off the bus near the Liverpool Thorn Collection, a set of rare trees planted on the central reservation between Templemore and Rathmore Avenues. There were lots of large red haws and apple-type fruits still on the trees, but no leaves or blossom yet, of course. Then we climbed up to Sudley House, to the sound of the bell of Mossley Hill Church. From the top of Holt Field there is a wonderful view to the south. On the skyline were three churches. The church tower in the Italianate “campanile” style, could be All Souls, Mather Avenue. To the right of it were  two narrow church spires which we couldn’t identify.

In the grounds of Sudley House the Snowdrops were looking ragged, while the crocuses and daffodils were not quite out.

A Robin was singing from the hedge and there were Wood Pigeons and Magpies on the fields. Near the house someone had put out a pile of chopped apples by a stump. There was a Rat tucking in when we first looked, and later there was a queue of a Common Gull and a Carrion Crow, with a Grey Squirrel making off with its booty.

We went into the house to see their current exhibition of etchings by Whistler and Pennell “Etching the City”, then set off early after lunch, as several of us had other plans.

Public transport details: Bus 80A Great Charlotte Street at 10.13, arriving Rose Lane / Templemore Avenue at 10.40. Returned on the 61 bus from Elmswood Road / North Mossley Hill Road at 12.55 to various destinations.

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Liverpool Museum, 9th February 2020

Pyjama Cardinalfish Sphaeramia nematoptera

It was the day of Storm Ciara, with high winds, gusty rain showers and weather warnings. It was too risky to go anywhere near a park, where there might be falling trees, and we didn’t fancy dodging high waves on  the coast, so we played safe and went into the World Museum for a look in their Aquarium. They have some tropical fish, but they mostly specialise in species that can be found in local waters, like dogfish and wrasse. One tank had skates, rays and these Lesser-spotted Dogfish (aka Small-spotted Catshark) Scyliorhinus canicula, which live in shallow water all around the British coastline. We often see their egg cases thrown up on local beaches.

They have a few of the lovely Moon Jellyfish Aurelia aurita, wafting lazily around their tank. The signage said they live in the Albert Dock and we often see them stranded on local beaches.

The best treat was a Short-snouted Seahorse Hippocampus hippocampus. It looked like there was only one in the tank, clinging to some vegetation which it exactly matched. The camouflage was so good, that there could have been more hiding somewhere. This one was tiny, perhaps 2 or 3 inches long (about 7 cm), but it could have been longer if its tail was uncurled. The caption didn’t say it was local, but they are British, found off the south coast and the Channel Islands.

We had a quick look around the Egypt exhibition, where we learned how to write Liverpool in hieroglyphics, then had lunch and headed home early.

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Eastham Woods, 2nd February 2020

It turned out to be a lovely mild, sunny day, feeling like spring. Eastham Woods are mostly Beech and Sweet Chestnut, and the thick carpet of spiky husks showed that the Sweet Chestnuts had had an excellent year in 2019. On the ground were two Robins and a Blackbird, and higher up was something chucking, whistling and tweeting in an ivy-covered tree. It was a Song Thrush, perhaps looking for a sheltered nest hole. Nowadays the woods aren’t kept too tidy, and much of the fallen branches are left to rot, producing interesting crops of fungi.

Many people were out walking their dogs, including the local Pug club. We saw 14 of them in one group and more later on. One young Mum was scattering nuts and attracting wildlife for her toddler. A Jay came down for them, and all the nearby Grey Squirrels homed in on the free food.

The bird feeders at the back of the Visitors’ Centre didn’t have any Woodpeckers or Nuthatches today, just Blue Tits, Great Tits and the occasional Coal Tit, with a Dunnock on the ground and a Chaffinch in the shrubbery. We crossed the car park to the picnic tables, noting the evergreen Western Hemlock Tsuga heterophylla with its little woody cones.

I hoped to see lots of Hazel catkins today, but the young saplings in the woods didn’t have any. Instead they had held onto their green leaves through the winter. But a big old tree in a hedge was putting on a show for us.

The railings overlooking the river were entwined with the fluffy seed heads of Old Man’s Beard Clematis vitalba, also known as Traveller’s Joy.

Down on the little beach a couple of Redshanks were probing the muddy sand.

Opposite the Eastham Ferry Hotel there are interesting views one way to Liverpool City Centre, Stanlow oil refinery the other and right opposite is Liverpool John Lennon Airport. It’s a great spot for aeroplane fanciers, and one man had a walkie-talkie which seemed to be picking up the pilot’s conversations with the control tower. He told us the plane just leaving was going to Geneva, while the one coming in to land was from the Isle of Man. The railings have recently sprouted some engraved padlocks – “love locks” – although some were combination locks, which we thought was cheating! Lovers are supposed to fix the padlock and throw away the key, symbolising that their love is eternal. On the way back to the bus, we noticed a splash of pale green next to the path and discovered two flimsy young Hawthorn bushes which had already put out their new leaves. That’s very early.

Public transport details: Bus X1 from Sir Thomas Street at 10.22, arriving New Chester Road / opp Woodyear Road at 10.45. Returned on the no. 1 bus from New Chester Road / Allport Road at 2.10, arriving Liverpool City Centre at 2.45.

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Crosby Coastal Park, 26th January 2020

It was a grey and overcast morning, with rain threatened for later. We walked down from South Road, Waterloo, on a bit of a twitch, looking for a rare Long-tailed Duck. At the south-east end of the boating lake were the usual suspects. Seven (Mute) Swans (a-swimming), many Mallards, Coots, Tufted Duck and Black-headed Gulls, all on the choppy water. On the grassy areas were Carrion Crows, Starlings and the ubiquitous Feral Pigeons. Then, to our surprise, we spotted two Turnstones pecking about on the grass. I’ve never seen them (just) inland before.

Hooray, the Long-tailed Duck was still there at the far north-west end of the lake, diving frequently and making it hard to get a picture. There must be plenty of food down there, because it hasn’t moved on after two or three weeks. It’s probably a juvenile female, not as handsome as an adult male, but a good tick for the year, nevertheless.

As we headed southwards towards the Lakeside Adventure Centre, the heavens opened, and we had to battle through a heavy rain squall mixed with hail and a cold driving wind. Very unpleasant! Happily, they let us sit in the back room overlooking the Marine Lake while we ate our sandwiches and dried out. In the same room was the Mosaic man – not one of Anthony Gormley’s, but very similar, apart from being covered in mosaic. I think it’s the one that was in Crosby Baths (the Leisure Centre) a few years ago.

The rain soon cleared up and we did a tour of the four seafront gardens. It was the right time of year to catch the catkins of the Silk Tassel tree Garrya elliptica in their glory.

Some of the Hollies were mildly infested with Holly leaf miner Phytomyza ilicis. The patches are caused by the grubs of a fly, eating the leaf from the inside. It’s one of the few things that can live on Holly.

Green spikes of Daffodils were shooting up and bunches of demure Snowdrops were just out.

There’s a big clump of dramatic windswept Crack Willow trees in the middle of Marine Garden (see picture at the top). Flowering Currant bushes were full of fat buds, with just a few beginning to show pink. The evergreen shrub Laurustinus had its white flowers out, and we admired the red berries with fourfold symmetry of some sort of Euonymus, perhaps Euonymus japonicus.

A few wild flowers were still struggling on. There were lots of Daisies on the lawn edges. We found one flowering plant of Red Dead-nettle and another of some sort of battered Sow Thistle. Near the north gate of Crescent Garden is a huge old Quince bush. Many of the crimson buds were swelling, but there were hardly any blooms. We were struck by the wonderful lichen encrusting its twigs and branches. I think it’s Maritime Sunburst lichen, Xanthoria parietina. It is often orange, but it’s grey-green when it grows in the shade, like this. The air down there must be very clean nowadays.

Public transport details: Bus 53 at 10.17 from Queen Square, arriving South Road / Waterloo station at 10.50. Returned on the 53 from Oxford Road / Courtenay Road at 1.45.

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Sefton Park, 19th January 2020

On our first Sunday walk of the new decade we were looking for signs of spring. It was a misty and frosty morning, not looking promising. However, both Blackbirds and Robins were singing from hedges as I walked to the bus. Sefton Park lake was hazy in the distance, and full of the usual birds – Canada Geese, three Mute Swans, hundreds of Black-headed Gulls, dozens of Coots and a few Moorhens, about a dozen Tufted Duck, two first-winter Herring Gulls and a handful of Little Grebes. The birds certainly FELT it was Spring. The Canada Geese were hooting and parallel swimming, the male swan was pecking at the Canada Geese, the male Coots were swimming low and threatening each other, while the females were collecting nesting material.

We were looking for winter and spring flowers, although we discounted the Gorse. Near the Eros fountain there is a Witch Hazel which I take a picture of nearly every year, and it was particularly splendid this year.

Right next to it was a low evergreen shrub with leaves like Privet, but a bit bigger, which had white flowers and black berries. My friend Google Images helped me identify it as Sweet Box or Christmas Box Sarcococca confusa. It is said to smell of vanilla or honey, but we didn’t notice that.

We had lunch by the old aviary, and noticed a Wren climbing the mossy sloping back wall, probing for small insects, and acting like a Wallcreeper. Some Ring-necked Parakeets flew over, squawking, while a small party of Goldfinches were feeding in amongst the Alder cones. Other birds were the ubiquitous Wood Pigeons, and a murder of Carrion Crows, gathered around a spot on a muddy bank. It wasn’t (murdered!) carrion they were after, though, just a handful of thrown seed. Lots of volunteer litter-pickers were about, doing their good work and helping to make the Park the beautiful place it is, even in winter.

The Viburnum bodnantense near the café, which was savagely pruned a year or two ago, is sprouting again, and putting out its winter flowers.

Near the Palm House the Contorted Hazel had immature catkins.

We usually come to the park on the first walk of the year because it is the RSPB’s day for stimulating interest in next week’s Big Garden Birdwatch. This year’s children’s activity was embedding black sunflower seeds in apples, to make hanging bird feeders.

I was also taken with the picture on one of their tablecloths – a hedgehog outline full of woodland.

They have some unusual trees inside the Palm House. Last year I discovered a rare Norfolk Island Pine, and today we found a Coffee bush Coffea canephora, a “Robusta’ variety from Africa, bearing loads of berries. The raw green coffee beans are inside the berries, but they don’t smell of anything until they are roasted.

Outside, a Nuthatch was visiting the bird tables. In the Dell was one small clump of Snowdrops just about to bloom. The Persian Ironwood tree, another early bloomer, was showing off its small crimson flowers, about 1 cm (half an inch) across.

As I neared home in Crosby I was stunned by this glorious fiery sunset.

Public transport details: Bus 82C from Elliot Street at 10.10 arriving Aigburth Road opp Ashbourne Road at 10.30. Returned on the 82 bus from Aigburth Road / Jericho Lane at 2.40, arriving Liverpool ONE bus station at 2.55.

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Leasowe, 8th December 2019

Leasowe is on the north coast of the Wirral, a known area for birds, and even the Merseyrail station signs tell people what to look for.

It was a very blowy day, but there is a very high bank there, part of the sea defences, and we stayed in its shelter all day, not seeing the sea at all.  From Moreton station we headed down Pasture Road and turned left into the Wirral Coastal Park, along the path by the river Birket. The hedgerows were bare and wintry, with hardly any berries or flowers, just a few dried up Haws, but House Sparrows were chirping and there were two Mallards on the Birket. The Alders are beginning to show signs of next year’s spring, putting out thick brown catkins.

In a wet field near the lighthouse a few dozen Black-headed Gulls were huddling in a puddle, accompanied by a handful of Lapwings.

Near Lingham Farm there was a Kestrel surveying the horse fields from the top of a telegraph pole, and a Robin hopping about in some thorny bushes. Flock of Starlings dropped in, then wheeled off again, and some flights of 50 or 100 Lapwings came up in the distance. Was there a bird of prey scaring them? Occasionally we heard the bubbling call of a Curlew, but we didn’t see it. We were looking for any sheltered seats to have our lunch, but they were all on the top of the bank, where it was almost too windy to stand upright. So we settled onto a big square stone block by the side of the path, with a view of Leasowe lighthouse.

The only flowers we saw were some just breaking out on the Ivy, and the bright yellow of the Gorse. There is an old country joke that goes “When gorse is out of bloom, kissing is out of season”. Of course, Gorse is ALWAYS in bloom!

We returned by a way we’d not taken before, northwards on the Wirral Circular Trail along the Birket on the other side of Pasture Road. It was another sheltered path, running alongside the Typhoo Tea factory, and it led us to a different station. There were two Moorhens on the river bank, and we could hear a Buzzard calling, but we didn’t see it. A single bumble bee flew past us groggily at head height. Was this a fertile queen which had emerged from hibernation? There’s hardly anything for her to eat, unless she can get some nectar from the Gorse or Ivy. The only other berries we saw today were these on an evergreen shrub, probably some kind of non-native  Pittosporum, either Mock Orange or Australian Laurel.

Public transport details: Train from Central towards West Kirby at 10.05, arriving Moreton 10.25. Returned from Leasowe Station at 1.43, arriving Liverpool at 2.10. 

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