“There is sad news that the last male nightingale on Salisbury Plain has failed to return. There were 10 in 2012. The last turtle dove was heard there in 2008.”  Nicola Chester Nature Writing on the Wessex Downs.

This distressing news is echoed here on Colliers Way where Nightgales have failed to return for the past two seasons – the last two breeding pairs were seen and heard in 2018.

22nd October 2020 / Temp: 11.5 – 12 C / 2pm – 4.15pm

The pathway through the woodland section of the cycle path looked particularly beautiful with the water autumn sun highlighting the strewn empty shells of hazel nuts and acorns and fallen leaves and fungus everywhere as we move into the height of the season.

But who can resist the lure of the deer paths through the tangled margins, despite the trailing brambles catching feet, hair, coats and hands?  Surely thorn torn hands bleeding over handkerchiefs and clothes is a small price to pay for hunting treasures?

The Glossy Glass Snail or Garlic Snail due to the faint smell of garlic it exudes if disturbed.  This one was foraging amongst decomposing ivy and moss and a very handsome beast he is too.

We scrambled deeper into the trees where the ivy joins the brambles to trap the unwary where the black pools and ditches create a moss heaven – it seemed every branch and tree trunk was coated with moss but also the occasional gift – in this case Black Stone Flower lichen which is another first for us in this area.

and more

Almost every mossy branch pays for a second glance – tiny, miniscule bonnet mushrooms, smaller than the smallest fingernail, large bracket fungus shedding their brown dusty pores around the tree, Whitewash lichen splashed on the bare trunks, Yellow Brain fungus clinging to the cleft in a branch, very quiet, a secret place, undisturbed except for the eerie sound of a Tawny Owl echoing through the trees and the mew of a Buzzard circling overhead, quartering the woodland in search of prey.

Purple jelly disc fungus finding a home amongst the moss drew us deeper into the undergrowth which was becoming more and more dense and increasingly difficult to scramble across. 

And intriguing looking fungus too far up the trunk for us to properly examine but we can fantasize that it could be a rare, very rare, form of fungus unseen and unrecognised for half a century…..

There comes a point when chosing a path when one questions one’s sanity or the wisdom of scrambling around, trying to avoid the boggiest spots, cursing deer for being so small so they are able to slip through waist high tunnels of bramble and whippy stems and tangled branches whereas we can take seemingly endless time removing brambles from our hair and legs and feet as we weighed up the choice of going all the way back or just ploughing on.

But who can resist seeing polypodies festooning moss covered branches and catching sight of strange-shaped fungus decorating the trees

some rather beautiful, with honey-comb like undersides which have wonderfully ordered patterns of snowy white pores, striking in the sunlight

After much ducking and weaving and diving, we eventually reached the end of the wood “bloody but unbowed” and pretty triumphant that we have managed it, still in one piece.  We were both very tired and couldn’t help reflecting how much easier it would have been 20, 30 or even 10 years ago.  We cheered ourselves with the thought that following a severe flare-up of arthritis which left my 83 year old husband unable to hold a cup and means even now over a year later he finds walking extremely painful, he had been told by his consultant to try and keep active and exercise – so a scramble through almost impenetarable woodland in boggy October was not in the least risky but in fact just what the doctor ordered!

Back on the cycle path we walked slowly to the nearest oak bench, sank down and basked in the warm golden sunlight of the sinking sun, watching the rays play over the field maple trees. 

A squirrel scampered across the path and shot up an adjoining tree, we could hear the yaffle of a Green Woodpecker from the woodland behind us, and the rattling warning notes of a Blackbird and very loud winter warning shout of the Robins declaring their patch.  Jackdaws and Crows chattered and croaked and a Wren shot past into the bushes.  Squabbling Pheasants were squawking away in the field in front of us and Wood Pigeons called as they flew across the trees.  All the sounds of a quiet woodland as the sun sank and the day drew towards dusk.  Time to go home for a welcome cup of tea.

19th October 2020 / Temp: 12.5 C / 10.35am – 1.14pm

A time of colour, all the shades of yellow and gold, red and scarlet, pink and purple, the time when Field Maples come into their own – ignored for most of the year until autum when they glow!  Wild Cherry leaves and Hawthorns and not just leaves, scarlet rose hips, skeins of blood red black bryony berries entwining around trees and posts and branches and up through the layers of fluffy old man’s beard.

And it not just the leaves and berries, there are also the fruits of autumn – fat rosy red apples, small bright green crab apples (whose strong scent we could smell before we reached the trees) the Blackthorn, heavily laden with purple-black sloes – splashes of vivid colour everywhere we look.

But of course it is the leaves which take the prize.  Forget Westminster Bridge –  ‘earth has not anything to show more fair‘ than a golden tree in autumn – who can look up and not be moved by its last gasp celebration before the long, dark days of winter arrive?

Quite a number of Ivy Bees around the frequent ivy shrubs along the path; I learned today for the first time that it is only the females which survive until this time of the year, still taking nectar back to their nests.  with a 7 spot ladybird.  Some authorities we have read write that this is also true of the Running Crab spiders, the one we saw sharing the long grass of the embankment must also have been a female, mainly by the colouring but also that they survive into October.

The embankment is our Common Lizard nursery and as we were walking along peering at every yellow ant hill and whistling in the hope of inveigling a lizard to come out, a walker passing by asked if we were looking for lizards.  He said his name was Mike and when he walked from Radstock several times a week he often stopped to check the lizards.  His highest tally, a couple of summers ago, was 18-19 lizards!  We thought this set a new record as the previous highest number was 15.  We post it here so that our followers know the number they will have to beat.

We felt pretty fortunate to spot just two (one each on separate anthills) at this the end of their active period before they begin to hibernate, usually by the end of October.  The two we saw were very small so likely to have been this year’s brood.

We then spotted a Red-Legged Shield bug sitting on a leaf soaking up the sun, with what looks like an orb spider scuttling away at the top of the photograph. 

There were a few bees and wasps about but apart from the above, the predominate insects were flies sunning themselves on almost every tree trunk and many leaves. 

Tiny delicate pleated inkcap (sometimes called Little Japanese Umbrella toadstool) which only last less than a day….

a few flowers left over from summer – scabious, pale toadflax, bush vetch, hawkweeds, wild carrot, meadow cranesbill and of course white deadnettle. 

Pale yellow snails halfway up the stem of a plant, large and small snails already tucked into their hibernation spots between the limestone slabs of the bridge.

A few birds, Blackbirds, Pheasant, Long-tailed Tits, flocks of gulls following the plough, a couple of Buzzards, a Raven and a Red Kite high in the sky circling and circling. 

The whole length of the path busy with cyclists, walking parties of half a dozen or couples and singles, runners, dog walkers – of every age and shape all out enjoying the burst of autumn sunshine and the trees’ displays while they are in the full glory.

And finally, who can resist yet another photograph of a common lizard clinging to the side of a substantial yellow ant hill?  Sadly this may be our last sighting of the year as they go into hibernation in November and don’t appear again until March/April.  We will miss them.

25th September 2020 / Temp: 15 C / 2.30pm – 4.35 pm

Brilliant sunshine but a swirling, gusty wind from the north-west tells us what we don’t want to hear – autumn has arrived.  There are compensations of course, the old man’s beard swathing almost every bush and tree, blackberries displaying their most delectable faces, and a sprinkling of plants – wild carrot, yarrow, toadflax, wild angelica, scabious and even meadow pea still in flower.

A few insects, drone flies, honey bees, yellow & black wasp mimic hoverflies, and perhaps more surprisingly a Red Darter and two Emperor dragonflies who have crossed the fields from the pond to hunt around the hedgerows.

As we were passing the embankment, we tried again the trick recommended by Liza Adamczewski or the Accidental ecologist on her twitter feed “I’m not joking but if you whistle the lizards come out to see who’s making all the noise”.  This will be our third attempt to entice them out and it has never worked, even though we whistled her choice of “You are My Sunshine” as well as we could.  Today, unable to remember the tune, we launched into “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean” and it worked! 

At one anthill – a lizard crept up to join the two who were half hidden in the grass and all three remained stock still, heads lifted, as if they were listening.  At a second anthill the lizard edged slowly forward out of his sheltering grasses and lifted his head and neck stretching as if to hear more clearly!  Magical!  And one thing we did learn, one of the lizards at the first anthill seemed extremely timid and didn’t venture far out and when, remembering at last the tune and beginning to whistle “You are my…” it disappeared in a flash.  Which only goes to prove quite conclusively that Somerset lizards obviously prefer traditional ballads (even Scottish ones) to these new-fangled popular songs.  No luck at any of the other anthills but now we know their preference, we will try again next time!

Not many birds, apart from dozens of Pheasants and Wood Pigeons of course, parties of finches flocking together for the coming winter, a couple of Buzzards mewing overhead in their never-ending search for food and then the sight of uncountable numbers of House Martins joined by a couple of Swallows swarming backwards and forwards over the fields and hedgerows, often soaring to great heights before swooping down in a wonderful fly-past.  How wonderful to see them, summer can’t be quite gone, the House Martins and Swallows are still here!

16th September 2020 / Temp: 24.5-26.5 C / 2.15pm – 5.20pm

A very warm late summer day and as the afternoon progressed the golden light of the low September sun made the fields and hedgerows glow with a soft haze – a beautiful and always fleeting sight.  What is also common at this time of the year in the fields belonging to the shooting estate which surround the cycle path is the sudden increase in the numbers of Pheasants bred for the sport – the birds seem everywhere, filling the air with their squawking and fluttering ungainly flight if disturbed.

Solitary Ivy Bee

A good day for lizards – we saw six scattered along the embankment, sitting on top of their yellow ant’s nest in groups of two three and one enjoying the sunshine and one skittering across the beaten path across what was the old Mells station yard. We were pleased to see the last one, we hadn’t seen a lizard in that spot for years so this was a good and promising sign.

Very little other action in this the fag end of summer, most of it around the flowering ivy – mainly ivy bees but also drone flies, hoverflies and a few wasps – although we did see an orange muscid fly (a first for us along the cycle path) and the only ichneumon wasp we noticed settled on a yarrow head…

Ichneumon wasp

Two Speckled Wood were the only butterflies despite the warm sunshine and a noticeable lack of birdlife, a few noisy Robins, Chaffinches, Jackdaws, Crows, 3 Buzzards circling and we heard and eventually spotted a Raven, followed soon after by the sighting of a Red Kite.

While resting on a convenient bench watching the world in the shape of numerous bicycles go by, one of the cyclists stopped and hidden under the helmet was Andrew whom we hadn’t recognised in his unusual disguise! We hadn’t seen him for ages and caught up on all his news of birds and wildlife seen on his frequent explorations of the neighbourhood.

He told us about a “ghost deer” which he had seen several times in the nearby Witham Park woods, a regular haunt of ours. This deer is so pale it is almost white and evidently is reported to be quite eerie by those who have seen it and has already become a local legend. He swears that he has also seen a big cat in the same woods – probably a panther – which he believes was either an escape from nearby Longleat Safari Park or equally likely an abandoned pet which had become too large. He said that the shape of the head and the length and curl of the tail is unmistakeable. We told him of our experience some years ago of hearing a low growl uncomfortably close when we were examining an almost complete fresh deer skeleton. Needless to say, we beat a very hasty retreat! These are extensive woods running for some miles and parts of which are quite remote. Still, this news should give a welcome frission to enliven this winter’s walks!

Hoverfly – Eristalis nemorum

Whilst we were chatting Andrew suddenly noticed a Brown Hare racing from the hedge where the farmer was driving a cutting machine and trimming the hedges, the drone of which had accompanied our entire walk. He dashed into the middle of the stubble field, stopped and sat for some time looking around before slowly loping off to the opposite hedgerow. The most action we had seen all afternoon which I unfortunately missed as I was too busy photographing a rather beautiful hoverfly feeding on a still flowering hogweed. Who knows if the panther didn’t sneak by whilst I was peering down at lipstick lichen in the woods or even the ghost deer while I was trying to focus on a particularly striking slime mould!

FIT Counts 2017-2020

Following on from our participation in the Timed Polinator Count at the end of August, the pie charts on Ivy, Ragwort and Buddleia published by PoMS following the countrywide FIT counts make fascinating reading. Two aspects stood out for us, first a timely reminder of the value of ivy flowers, a less obvious source of nectar to us at least than the more colourful Ragwort and Buddleia flowers and which moreover attract almost three times as many various pollinators that the other two plants.

The other striking result for us was that only 15% of the pollinators on the Buddleia were butterflies – whenever we noticed the flowering shrub during the summer they always appear to be swarming with butterflies and we barely take account of even the bees – it’s a nudge to us to be more observant and not just look at the most colourful and showy insects which draw the eye.

It would be interesting to see the numbers for Dandelions as we are always astonished at the numbers of bees and hoverflies we notice on Dandelions, particularly at this time of the year, another of the late flowering plant.

13th September 2020copyright: John Hansford

This Blackcap might be a juvenile Male from this Spring? It was warbling gently at times.

John Hansford posted today’s sightings along Colliers Way on Twitter : “Decent fall of migrants today including 3 Singing Willow Warblers, Chiffchaffs galore, Blackcaps and a single Garden Warbler. 6 Buzzards, 1 Red Kite, 1 Kestrel.

6th September 2020

John Hansford sighted 11 Lizards, 1 Hare, Spotted Flycatcher (above) Common Whitethroat, Willow Warbler, 30+ Chiffchaffs, Red Kite, Marsh Tit today.  Eleven Common Lizards!  And we thought the seven we saw on the 22nd August was a record!  It really is becoming a thriving colony.  What an amazing number of warblers highlighting that Colliers Way really is is one of the best sites for them in Somerset.

26th August 2020 / 20 C / 11.32 pmDSCN0827 (4).JPG

Our last day for the Timed Pollinator Count which dawned fair with lots of blue skies and bright sunshine, so we set out in good heart to check our wild angelica plant of which we have become really quite fond.  And again it delivered, a total number of insects was 28 in all – 5 wasps, 3 hoverflies and an extraordinary 20 flies of every shape and size including another ichneumon wasp (sometimes called sabre wasps).  During our three plus years of monitoring the cycle path we haven’t seen a single ichneumon wasp and now 2 different species in 2 days – sometimes it pays just to stop and stare.  It apeared from this very small survey that 11.30 in the morning and 3.30 in the afternoon were the times when we saw considerably more insects, it might be worth while checking if these are the times when we see more butterflies.

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More and more wasps feasting around yesterday’s apple fall, making the area around the trees pretty hazrdous for the unwary, no sign of hornets arriving yet.  No signs of lizards either when we again checked the embankment and didn’t spot a single one – each anthill was bare and not even a face peering out of the thick grass – well it’s always a matter of luck whether we see them and at least we have confirmation that their ittle colony is thriving.

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We celebrated our last day of TPC by enjoying a delicious lunch at The Walled Garden at Mells, and bought some very healthy looking herb plants from their good selection and whilst we were in the village, we took the opportunity, as always, to pop into the churchyard of  St Andrew’s church, the tower of which we can see from the cycle path.  Here we spent a moment at the graveside of the poet Sigfreid Sassoon, whose poems during the First World War did so much to draw attention to the plight of the soldiers at the front.  Always remembered.  https://www.britainexpress.com/counties/somerset/churches/mells.htm

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The shed at the corner of the graveyard where the sexton, the flower arrangers and the people who tend the graves keep their tools.

25th August 2020  / Temp: 20 C / 2.30pmDSCN0817 (4).JPG

The tranquil view of the distant hills belies the reality of the afternoon – gale force winds of nearly 50 mph which had made us pause for thought but decided to do another pollinator count anyway.  The first onslaught nearly knocked us off our feet but we battled on and soon reached the protection of the trees where the wind was simply envigorating and the sun warm!

The insects on the wild angelica seemed not at all disturbed as the plant was tossed and thrown about, they clung on for dear life and continued feeding.  We counted a total of 17 insects, as usual, lots of flies – 12 in all – 3 hover flies and 2 wasps including this rather lovely ichneumon wasp.

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No bees on the angelica but we did note about 9 or so bees as we walked along, on the fat purple thistle flowers, knapweed and yarrow, not many but interesting that some bees (mostly honey bees and bumble bees) were also out and about despite the  winds bending trees in an alarming manner.

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The wind also took its toll of the laden apple trees, we dodged the onslaught of fallen apples where they were falling fast, adding to the pile carpeting the grass surrounding the trees.

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The wasps were already hard at work feasting on the unexpected bounty and no doubt the hornets would be arriving soon.

22nd August 2020  / Temp:   20.5 C  / 3.50pm

Thrashing rain and storm force winds most of the day yesterday so this was the first opportunity to complete our second Pollinator FIT Count.   The wind  was still strong but it had abated somewhat and thankfully  the sun shone so we took our chance.   We were so relieved we had chosen the large angelica plant which was growing in the grass verge on the hedgerow edge which is well protected by trees as there were hardly any insects on the flowers we passed on our way along the path, bar a colourful hoverfly busily feeding on a yarrow (above) and another on a hawkweed (below).  The strength of the wind made photographic records on the the angelica impossible as flower umbels were never still, but fortunately we still managed to count a total of 29 insects: 19 flies (many blue and a few green blowflies, tachinid flies (including several relatively common Eriothrix rufomaculatus (with their black and red bodies), 5 hoverflies, 2 honeybees and a single wasp.   DSCN0801 (2)

As flies unlike bees are still active in less favourable weather conditions, even on windy and overcast days such as this, we were fully expecting a really good number of flies on our count rather than bees or wasps and this proved to be the case.

As we were so close we decided to check out the yellow-ant hills along the embankment on the off-chance we might catch sight of a common lizard.  We love this embankment which faces the sun all day and is a thick, tangled mass of wild flowers – shades of purple, yellow, magenta, pink and white, with the rare splash of blue from the meadow cranesbill – common fleabane, knapweed, scabious, yarrow, pale toadflax, various hawkweeds, rosebay willow herb covered in seed, great willow herb, yellow rattle, st john’s wort, ragwort, common birds foot trefoil, creeping cinquefoil, great fat woolly thistles all on or above eye-level, as are the anthills, so imagine our delight when we saw 7 lizards in a stretch of no more than 25 yards!  First what we thought was one adult, turned out to be three when we checked the photograph (see below)….

while just a short distance away, maybe 7 yards or so, we saw a single lizard standing guard in total frozen stillness on the top of an anthill – another 10 yards or so searching carefully (their camouflage is so very effective, they can be difficult to spot) we then triumphantly spotted two small juveniles, one little stubby already minus his tail which he no doubt dropped when escaping a predator.   Common lizards give birth in July so these two small lizards were likely to be not much more than a month old.DSCN0794 (3)

Astonishingly, we had walked no more than another 10 yards or so when we caught sight of yet another lizard, stretched across the grass, almost completely camouflaged while he enjoyed the short burst of unexpectedly hot sun as the wind dropped to a gentle zephyr.

Whenever we catch sight of lizards when walking, they skitter off at such lightening speed we only can a brief glimpse so it is such a joy to be able to watch these embankment lizards for as long as we like, or as long as we can remain totally still.  Although common lizards are the most common reptiles in the UK, there appears to be a decline in the population due to loss of habitat, so Common Lizards are also listed on the UK Biodiversity Action Plan.   It’s really encouraging to see such a thriving little breeding colony here beside the cycle path.

After watching the lizards enjoying their sun bath, we decided to follow their example and walked back along the path to the large boulder beside the buddleia

(the flower heads of which were brown and shrivelled – sadly over for another year) we found comfortable perches, lifted our heads and turned up our faces to the sun and simply soaked up the sunlight while chatting in a desultory fashion to two walkers from Radstock who were sitting on the picnic benches alongside enjoying the peace and quietness of the path.  We had noticed far more walkers than usual since the start of the lock-down in March and, interestingly,  many more younger people walking for pleasure and not just to exercise dogs.

It was such a pleasure to feel the warmth of the sun after so many dreary, dull and overcast days –  to sit in a small orchard of ripening apples, look out over the ripening corn fields and hedgerows towards the church tower standing proud of the stately yew trees in the far distance, surrounded by wild flowers – possibly the last gasp summer – a wonderfully soothing place to rest after our little lizard safari!!

20th August 2020 / Temp: 20.5 C / 12.50pm – 1.35pmDSCN0770 (3).JPG

We have volunteered to take part in the Pollinator Flower-Insect Timed Counts (Pollinator FIT Counts, for short) which is a citizen science project aiming to understand how pollinator populations are changing across Great Britain.  We have been asked to watch a patch of flowers for 10 minutes and record the insects that visit the flowers, five times over eight days (at least once per day on five days).

We intended to do the count in our local churchyard which is close to where we live but between agreeing to do the count and the count starting the entire churchyard has been mowed within an inch of its life and all the lovely wild flowers have disappeared – so….

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It was a beautiful, sunny morning, predominently blue skies with flying white clouds and very windy.  We walked the path checking on the recommended plants but those which were in flower were in the full force of the wind and so eventually we chose an angelica from the fallback list simply because it was sheltered from the wind and was covered in insects!  We counted 17 pollinators during our 10 minute slot: 3 honey bees, 6 hoverfies, 7 other flies and 1 “other insect” where we couldn’t be certain of the species.

It is due to rain tomorrow and even higher winds are expected – will we manage 5 visits in the next 6 days?  Watch this space!!

12th August 2020 / Temp: 25.5 – 28C / 9.20 – 11.15 am

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Much too hot to walk in the sun so we again headed to the woodland path and kept to the cool shade of the trees as much as we were able.  We were keen to walk up to what we always call “the butterfly glade”, a unprepossessing looking area of abanded sheets of corrugated iron, old railway lines and rubble but lots of thick clumps of common valerian and umbellifers with two reasonable sized  buddleia flanked by deciduous trees and it is here where we have often watched Silver-washed fritillary butterflies in the past.  If one Swallow doesn’t make a summer, we hope the same doesn’t apply to butterflies because eventually we were delighted to catch sight of a solitary fritillary!  Not exactly the abundance we had hoped for, but one is at least a promising sign.

The butterfly count was notable firstly for the number of species we saw and secondly for the disappointing quantity – only 4 Large and 3 Small White, 1 Holly Blue, 3 Gatekeeper, 3 Meadow Brown, 5 Speckled Wood, 2 Green Veined White, 3 Red Admiral, 1 Painted Lady and 2 Small Skipper was the sum total of all the butterflies we saw both at the glade and during the rest of the walk.

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A good number of cyclists and runners passed us along the path although no children except for a very young girl on her pony who didn’t look much above 4 years old being led by her mother who told us that they lived in the nearby village of  Buckland Dinham, and that the horses had been a boon for both her and her children during the past 4 months or so when so much of normal life was under lock-down.

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Good to see that the garden escape himalayan honeysuckle has survived the cut and although already past its best, is still hanging on.  Signs of autum everywhere from the old man’s beard smothering the trees and covering the hedges, elderflower berries hanging black and luscious, purple sloe laden blackthorn, hawthorn beries already bright scarlet and the dogwood berries already turnning black.  The ground under the hazel trees are carpeted with open nut shells discarded by squirrels, the blackberries are well on the way to ripeness and the first of the black bryony berries are appearing climbing every post and hedge.  Every year it catches us by surprise as we insist it is far too early and every year there is a brief moment of dread at the thought of the nights beginnning to draw in and the long months of dark winter days ahead.

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We heard a juvenile raptor crying for food, watched several families of long tailed tits flitting about the tall spreading ash trees, their bright green leaves lit by the sun, even heard a tawny owl hooting softly in the distance – but so little sign of bird life during the yearly moult, a few crows, lots of wood pigeons and a pheasant was all we saw.  However John Hansford said he heard his first Robin giving its winter song – another signal for the turning of the season but he also saw 40 plus house martins still around his house so not yet… not quite yet.

2nd August 2020

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John Hansford posted on twitter: Garden Warblers and Whitethroats (above) still feeding young on Mells Down (ie Colliers Way) no shortage of Chiffchaffs either.

31st July 2020 / Temp: 30.5 C / 2pm – 4.10 pm

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After our woodland walk recorded below with its scarcity of insects, we thought we would check the open path where the bordering plants have more flowers and there is a large buddleia which escaped the fate of most of them during last spring’s savage cuts.   We hadn’t walked far before we reached the stretch of woolly thistles just beginning to flower with one or two blooms on each plant and as always they are a magnate for bees and butterflies alike.  A beautiful Brimstone (above) was feasting on one and a couple of

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buff-tailed bees are feeding on another.

While the drone fly (Eristalis arbustorum) seems to prefer the newly opening hogweed

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The Meadow Browns appear to be very content with the spear thistles

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but if it’s seduction which is on your mind, these two bonking beauties look to a beautiful wild carrot with its deep red central flower to set the mood.

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altogether (including those around the buddleia) we counted 36 butterflies – 7 Gatekeepers, 2 Red Admirals, 3 Peacocks, 8 Small Whites, 5 Commas, 2 Speckled Woods, 4 Brimstones, 3 Meadow Browns, 2 Small Skippers and 5 Commas (although still no sign of Silver Washed Fritillaries) which is a goodly number in such a short distance and time, and a strong contrast to the woodland section of the path.DSCN0629 (4).JPG

Seeing and, more noticeably, hearing the farm tractors, haymaking machines and trailers  from the fields on either side of the path signalled the first signals that the seasons will soon change, as did the clusters of empty fresh hazelnut shells on the banks and path.  Other signs that autumn was not far away were the flame coloured lords & ladies berries, the ripening sloes some of which were already blue-black and the guelder rose berries glowing red and yellow in the sun.

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As always at least one Buzzard, several Ravens and a Red Kite circled above the machinery, eyeing the field for any signs of small creatures avoiding being caught in the balers and offering the raptors a tasty morsel.

What countered these early signs of autumn was the heat!  The hottest day of the year  and the sun was burning and so fierce we turned away from the open path to take the wooded path which at first was blissfully cool in the shade of the tall ash trees, particularly the welcome breeze, but as we descended into the hollow between the high banks, it became hotter – sticky, humid and almost tropical.

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There was a noticeable scacity of butterflies and insects,  apart from the harvestman above which may be a Leiobunum rotundum which matures at the end of July.  Apart from the raptors,  the only other birds we heard was a Green Woodecker, Wood Pigeons and Wrens.  Few flowering plants, Enchanters Nightshade which was prolific, the occasional figwort just coming into flower, and nettles as far as the eye could see!

22nd July 2020 / Temp: 21 C / 1.5pm – 4.30pm

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Continuing our butterfly hunt, we decided to check out a small stretch of the path from Mells old station towards Radstock.  There are at least half a dozen buddleia bushes along this area backed by trees and fronted by a wide area of unimproved grassland scattered with yarrow, knapweed, ragwort, st john’s wort and lots of tall waving grasses.  Remembering the clouds of butterflies surrounding the single buddleia at the other end of the path, we thought we were in for a feast!  Imagine our disappoinment when all we spotted along the whole line of trees were a small sprinkling of small whites, 1 Red Admiral and 1 Peacock!

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However, our disappointment was tempered by finding several tall, commanding wild parsnip plants in full flower. This was a plant we have always expected to find and this was our first sighting in all the years we have been walking here.  Believing it to be fennel, we broke off a leaf and crushed it releasing its strong scent, slightly reminiscent of coriander seeds.  It definitely wasn’t fennel and as we wondered, we were joined by a couple also out walking who had a smartphone app which told us it was the elusive wild parsnip.   We had a long chat about skylarks on Whitesheet hill and how friends of theirs in Kent have just aquired an old orchard with Nighingales.  It wasn’t until we reached home that we found out the sap of wild parsnip can cause skin inflammation, burns and blisters so we were extremely lucky.

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Working our way back to the path through what had been the old station yard, we caught sight of lots of Blackcaps feasting on the berries of the large dogwood – it was so lovely to see what was probably a family party flitting about the branches, pecking away at the fruit, particularly as we hear Blackcaps more often than we see them.

It simply wasn’t our day for butterflies though.  Walking along the well-trodden path through the thick beds of birds-foot trefoil and centaury we saw only 3 common blue butterflies along the whole stretch which was really surprising.  Bees there were in plenty, we counted more than a dozen bees feeding on one clump of golden flowers no more than 4 or 5 feet wide, the weight of the beees pulling the flower head dow so that it appeared as if the whole bed of flowers was constantly moving.

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We checked almost every wild carrot for the single red flower at its centre – we drew a blank at almost all, found wishy-washy pink in several and then, there is was, the blood red flower in all its glory which never ceases to amaze!

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As we began to tire and think about turning for home, we spotted a Song Thrush on the path quite some distance away.  We walked very slowly and quietly towards it, binoculars raised, when three cyclists came up at speed behind us.  We kept our eyes on the bird, fully expected it to alarm call and fly off – not a bit of it – it did hop over to the edge of the path, but no sooner had the cyclists passed than it hopped back to the snail shell it had been attacking and resumed bashing it on the tarmac, and greedily pecking away at the contents.  Amusing to see that the thrush preferred to use the tarmac path rather than looking for a suitable stone which is where we usually see the tell-tale scattering of broken snail shells.

If you are wondering about the large stone at the head of this entry, that is the back easing stone for use at the end of a long walk – perfectly angled for lying flat out, gazing up at the whisps of white cloud in the otherwise clear blue sky, watching the swallows following the insects and flying high, listening to the gentle hum of bees, unknotting, mind emptying and slowly floating off.

16th July 2020 / Temp 22.5 C / 2.20 – 4pmaComma 2.jpg

After an absence of nearly six weeks, we managed a quick visit to the cycle path.  An unexpected burst of sunshine after days of dull, very windy weather persuaded us to venture out to see if there were any butterflies.  There were a few –  3 Comma, 11 Small White, 3 Ringlet, 2 Small Skipper, 5 Peacock, 10 Meadow Brown, 6 Red Admiral, 2 Gatekeeper, 2 male and 3 female Brimstone,  and 1 Small Tortoiseshell!!  So pleased to see the Commas although, sadly, still no sign of Silver Washed Fritillaries again this year – seemingly they are now gone forever.DSCN0413 (3)

Oh and 1 Brimstone moth and 1 Wood Carpet moth, lots of fat bumble bees, including dozens on and around the rose bay willowherb carpeting the embankment, several Labyrinth spiders waiting in their lair and what looked like a murky-legged black legionnaire fly settled on an umbelifer.

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The Butterfly Conservation body had alerted us all earlier in the year that they believed this July would have a bonanza of butterflies and by today’s count, it’s all looking very promising indeed.  We wondered if the unseasonably wet June and dull July so far might have had a detrimental effect on butterfly numbers, but thankfully, it appears not to be the case.

Butterflies are contrary creatures.  Despite the profusion of flowering plants along the verges and embankment, a good number of these butterflies were spotted high up in the trees or, in the case of the Meadow Browns, along the hedges.

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Or, the more striking butteflies favoured clustering around the single remaining buddleia of any size which survived last year’s ravages.  A fluttering mass of vividly coloured  butterflies were landing on the purple flowers – overwhelmingly Red Admirals, Peacocks, the occasional Comma, with Yellow and White Brimstones and a number of Small Whites to add delicacy to the dramatic and spectacular display!  When not feeding, the Whites were playing chase, all around the tree and down into the undergrowth beneath.    If Wordsworth were here, I’m sure he would say the butterflies were “fluttering and dancing in the breeze” and this sight is surely one which would also “flash upon that inward eye, which is the bliss of solitude”

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High summer means flowers and we did a quick head count of the plants in bloom as we walked: meadow cranesbill, knapweed, old man’s beard, yarrow, centaury, white dead nettle, great willow herb, rosebay willow herb, red clover, creeping cinquefoil, woolly thistle, bush vetch, scabious, pale toadflax, agrimony, hawkweed sp, hedge bedstraw, ladies bedstraw, common cow-wheat, common valerian, spear thistle, herb robert, wild basil, bramble, sorrel, red campion, nipplewort, buttercup, red campion, prickly sow thistle, birds foot trefoil, St John’s wort, little bindweed, white clover, dandelion, moon daisy, ragwort, hop trefoil, ribwort plantain, chickweed, forget me not, birds eye speedwell, creeping thistle, buddleia, corn poppy.

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The maize crop in the adjoining fields was growing well and totally weed and insect free.

As is usual at this time of the year once the young have fledged, most of the birds were silent, apart from lots of twittering in the bushes and still songs from the Wrens, Bullfinches, Common Whitethroats and of course the croak of a Raven.

We also spotted a Garden Warbler, Blackbirds, a Robin and as always lots of Wood Pigeons.  The path was fairly busy with a  number of cyclists, but during the lulls in traffic, it was blissfully quiet, peaceful and restful – a beautiful afternoon’s stroll where calamities like pandemics simply didn’t exist.

8th June 2020 / Temp; 18.5 c / 2.35pm – 4.45pmDSCN0080 (3)

Well, there’s a surprise!  Butterflies.  This is usually the time of the June lull where there are few butterflies but we have been seeing so many early arrivals this year and it appears the butterflies have joined in.  During the course of a couple of hours we spotted 9 Small Tortoiseshell, 2 Marbled White, 13 Meadow Brown, 7 Small White and 3 Large Skipper butterflies, a single 5 spot Burnet moth and a Carpet moth.    Not a huge number, but a good promise of what some have suggested will be a bumper year for butterflies, and presumably moths.

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It’s Chasing the Grasshoppers Season!  The time of the year when we spend far too much time, camera at the ready, moving at a half-crouch, pursuing both Field and Meadow grasshoppers across the thick grassy area where they abound (and bound!) in great numbers, hopping away at angles from every footfall, so many we are always sure we will capture the shot of a lifetime.  It always ends in failure – a few smudged photographs of extremely well camouflaged insects – ah but next time, next time we will triumph!

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Uncountable numbers of bees swarming over the brambles as more and more of their flowers open, mostly buff-tailed and red-tailed bumblebees, honey bees and hoverflies.  Striking how one thicket of brambles in full flower has barely a bee whilst the next one will be humming.  All this is very heartening after our last couple of visits and made up for the apparent lack of beetles – apart of course from the ubiquitous Thick-legged flower beetles – we spotted 8 before abandoning the count.  However, we did catch sight of a Scorpion fly, a strange looking beast with his long beak and orange-red scorpion like tail – a first sighting for us along the Way.

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Although there was a complete lack of beetles or indeed any insects on the moon daisies or umbellifers, whatever insecticide cloud which blew over the cycle path, it hasn’t appeared to have affected the spiders at all.  All along the embankment we saw many of the distinctive dense white silk tents of the Nursery Web spider, keeping the spiderlings safe while the mother sits on guard close by.

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There were also so very many spiders’ web half hidden in amongst the shrubs and trees, but the spider below is the first we have noticed who has placed her nest of spiderlings in the centre of a dog rose flower head and built her web around to enclose and protect them.

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We were unable to identify her at the time and unfortunately, like all of the subjects our camera-woman chose today, the photograph is fuzzy and out of focus so we have been unable to identify it at home.  We will continue trying because it does seem a pretty unlikely place to build a nest!

The number of birds was not abundant but there was some activity in the bushes and trees and good birdsong from the Common Whitethroats, Wrens, Blackbirds, Goldfinches and Chiff Chaffs and we also spotted a Buzzard, a flock of Jackdaws and a few Lesser Black-backed gulls.  We were particularly enchanted by a lengthy song which could have come from a Blackcap or Garden Warbler, as we couldn’t see it we couldn’t be sure, but we stood for ages in the warm sun of later afternoon listening to his pure notes filling the summer air – quite magical!

28th May 2020 / Temp: 22- 24 C / 2.30pm – 5.10pmDSCN9943 (2)

A really lovely sunny summer’s afternoon – the sun hot, the grass dry and parched on the areas of shallow soil (so not surprising that someone has had a barbecue) lots of bird song and all the early summer flowers in full bloom – trails of  pink and white dog roses falling over almost every tree and bush, clinging to honeysuckle which supported white bryony, while the creamy elderflowers covered their trees, dogwood in flower and the fragile hop flowers waved in the breeze, still green but almost ready  to bloom not to forget the brambles just beginning to produce their white flowers.

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Under the trees and hedges, along the embankment and verges red campion flashed amongst the white or cream cow parsley, hogweed, yarrow, meadow sweet, bladder campion and moon daisies.  Lots more colour offered by the yellow rattle, hop trefoil, birds-eye trefoil, creeping cinquefoil, rock roses, meadow cranesbill, dove’s foot cranesbill, field bindweed, forget-me-not, bush vetch, knapweed, both red and white clover and of course the buttercups and dandelions still clinging on.

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One would imagine this provided nectar in plenty  and the day was warm and sunny so we were again mystified why there were such a dearth of insects.  Last year there were so many during the same time of the year that we struggled to identify and gave up on a good number and every hogweed flowerhead had its cluster of bees, hoverflies, day-time moths and beetles and at least two moon daisies had crab spiders hidden under their petals.  Walking along past ranks of hogweed, cow parsley and moon daisies, we searched empty flower head after empty flower head in vain for signs of life.  The number of bees during almost the entire afternoon could be counted on both hands, hoverflies on one hand, a few flower beetles and that was it.

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We ran into John Hansford half-way along the path, camera at the ready, trained on the broad stretch of open grassland with its scattering of small shrubs searching for the Grizzled Skippers which he spotted on this site last year.  No luck today although, as seen at the top of the page, he did get a great photograph of a Large Skipper.  It was so lovely to see him and to swap coronavirus news (John’s wife is on the front-line so risking her life every day caring for others) so he is scrupulous in keeping to the rules of lock-down, very aware of the need to protect his wife and by the number of neighbours, friends and acquaintances who have lost their lives.   He alerted us to a nest of Garden Warblers close by and mentioned seeing a Red Kite (which we had also seen) a Buzzard and a Heron flying over and he also thought there were not that many birds about and had also noticed  the lack of insects, before he had to hurry away to a meeting.

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Having said that, we did see a few birds, a Marsh Tit, Common Whitethroats, Chaffinches, Greenfinches, Blackbirds, Blackcaps, Chiff Chaffs, Robins, Wrens, Crows, Jackdaws and Wood Pigeons and we also heard a Raven.

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During the course of the afternoon, apart from a good number of spiders hiding among the grasses, we also managed to see 9 Brimstone, 8 Small White, 2 Speckled Wood and 2 Small Copper butterflies and, fortunately to save the day, on our way back along the path we finally saw what we had expected to see all afternoon – two Painted Lady butterflies chasing each other and dozens of bees of every description it seemed, swarming over a dense thicket of brambles.  Thank heaven for the good old common or garden bramble flower, just beginning to open, and preferred by so many insects who have spurned the more beautiful and colourful flower species.

28th May 2020Large Skipper

This gloriously colourful photograph from John Hansford of a Large Skipper butterfly perfectly conveys summer on Colliers Way and, by arriving at the same time as the slight easing of Covid 19 lockdown due to start in a few days, helps to lift the spirits and send a cheering note of hope for the future.  John also saw three Common Blue butterflies – a first sighting of these two species of quintessentially summer butterflies.

20th May 2020 / Temp: 24.5 C / 2.30pm

The heat of the afternoon was more like mid-summer than late May which persuaded us to walk from Buckland Bridge uphill to the wooded and shady stretch of the cycle path where it was cooler and, as is usually the case, has fewer cyclists.  We stopped half-way up to lean on the five-barred gate, to rest and to admire the view across the fieds.

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Wonderful isn’t it?

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Idyllic and  Sublime.   A gently sloping pasture, dotted with trees and edged with a hedge of good sized mixed deciduous trees like oak and ash growing happily with shrubs, climbers and under plants, leading up to Newbury Firs woodland edging the Iron Age hillfort at the top of the hill.  A quintessential lowland rural English landscape, beautiful meadows filled lush grass scattered with buttercups and moon daisies in full flower, the glory of early summer arriving at last after the endless rain of autumn and winter.  Feast your eyes!

But here’s the rub – among all of those flowers I found one insect – a soldier beetle (cantharis pellucida) waiting forlornly on a grass stem in flower for insects on which he can predate.

The poor soldier beetle waits in vain because there are no insects.  The “Silent Spring” which Rachel Carson warned of hasn’t yet arrived because we have heard bird song, but its forerunner has arrived – in spades!

As we had walked along Colliers Way, we had become increasingly puzzled about the lack of insect life, a few butterflies – a scant 10 in nearly 2 hours, a few thick-legged-flower beetles, only two bees – two bees!  Why? Which explains why I opened the gate and tresspassed onto the farmer’s field expecting to find here the flowers full of butterflies and insects usual at this time of year, but there were none.DSCN9833

Crossing the track over the old railway bridge to look at the field on the other side of the cycle path, we saw a field full of a well grown cereal crop, looking vigorous and healthy.  We examined the plants from the gate with our butterfly binoculars to see the same result – no sign of insects, butterflies, spiders, ladybirds, of all the creatures one would expect to find in a field, there were none at all.

Bordering the path a good many of the recommended trees for the ideal mixed woodland habitat, full sized Oak, Ash, Hawthorn, Hazel, Blackthorn, a few Sycamore, garden privet together with lots of Willow, Elder, Elm spp. dogwood, bramble, honeysuckle, black and white bryony, wild clematis, buddleia, dog rose, guelder rose and spurge laurel.  In the thicker parts of the self-seeded wood there are a good number of fallen trees and branches providing home to fungi, moss and lichen, all of which provides good habitat for the roe deer, fox, badger, bank vole, wood mice, common lizard, grey squirrel which we see or see the signs when walking along.

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So everything is in place for a good, healthy number of insects to thrive and multiply and if they are not, the only explanation we can come to is that the insecticide and pesticides being sprayed on the pasture and crops on either side of the path have blown over and caused this devastating impact on the insects along the cycle path.  At least the soldier beetle in the photograph above was rather more successful than the one in the pasture and, having caught a thick-legged flower beetle,  he managed to hang on both to hogweed and beetle, despite both being blown this way and that by the blustery wind!

We added yet another item to our list of “Sights of Colliers” which included a young man being pulled on his skate-board by a magnificent white-haired blue-eyed husky,  a couple pedalling a tandem recumbent, one of whom was disabled, fathers pulling trailers with a young child lounging Roman style on its padded seat, a line of very young girls on their fat-bottomed Thelwell ponies, and now a young man riding an electric one-wheeled skateboard with great elan.  He looked supremely elegant and athletic as he travelled at speed uphill, weaving from side to side – yet another electric-assisted device to join the huge increase in the number of rather well-padded cyclists looking considerably less than athletic riding their electric bicycles!

14th May 2020 / Temp: 13 C / 2.20pmDSCN9736 (5)

The cycle path was extremely busy with a constant flow of cyclists so walking was quite hazardous as very, very few people use their bell to warn us they are coming.  This can prove to be difficult when we are glued to our binoculars following a bird above us or equally glued to our butterfly binoculars peering at a small beetle scurrying through the undergrowth, so focused that we are unaware of our surroundings.  Good to see so many family parties and groups of friends out enjoying the sunshine, as well as couples and single dedicated racing demons.

Few walkers but Spiders… just about everywhere, tents and blankets, scattered with windblown flower petals, leaves and dandelion seed creating a collage which wouldn’t disgrace many an abstract artist, and the funnels – the Labyrinth spiders have arrived!  It does seem very early as we don’t usually see them until June, but their funnels are unmistakable and they can sometimes be seen sitting on the top of their funnel… lurkin’ and jus’ waitin’…..

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Unfortunately the other spider photographs were inadequate to successfully ID the remainder we saw – so many tiny creatures, so difficult to name.

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One creature we did succeed in tracing was the Hairy shield bug, below, which is seen all year round although in winter it is dark brown.   We actally spotted it in a large bed of stinging nettles despite its larval food being white dead nettle which is also very widespread along the path all year around.  The adult bug is often referred to as sloe bug even though rather strangely neither the adult or lavae feed on sloes but honeysuckle.  Whatever, it is quite a handsome little beast and  new species to add to our list.

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On the butterfly front, we saw at least a dozen Whites, half a dozen Orange Tips (only 2 female) and a couple of Brimstones, lots of minute Cocksfoot moths feasting on the dandelion heads but not that many birds, Goldfinches, Robins, Blackbirds, Whitethroats, Wrens and Chiff Chaffs seem to dominate (but that may because they sang the loudest and made the most noise!) but we did spot a Magpie and, rather bizarrely a Moorhen!  No Nightingales.

During the infrequent lull of traffic when we were peering into the tangled undergrowth of already seeding tall grasses, flowering red campion, cow parsley and reddening sorrel, feeling the hot sun on our backs and the breeze ruffling our hair, we experienced flashes of the delight of childhood days in May when winter viruses were banished by sunshine and the long holidays were at last in sight, just above the horizen and all was well with the world.

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John Hansford managed a quick exercise cycle along the path and captured this lovely photograph of a Green Veined White, a first sighting of the year.  The butterfly season is beginning to warm up, I wonder if we will see one of the joys of summer this year, the Silver Washed Fritillaries – do hope so.  John also saw 4 Garden Warblers – a goodly haul, it seems to be such a good year for migrant warblers.

6th May 2020 / Temp: 17.5 C / 2.40pmDSCN9575 (2).JPG

Brilliantly clear air and warm sunshine provided the first taste of summer, confirmation of which was a first sighting of the beautiful swollen-thighed flower beetle this year. Quite a number of Orange Tip butterflies, both male and female, a couple of Small White and at least 6 Brimstone.  St Mark’s flies swarming over the may blossom and tree bumblebees and buff-tailed bees everywhere along the embankment but the lizards were out of sight, sheltering from the hot sun.  It wasn’t long before we also caught sight of a brightly coloured insect, a new one for us, a Cinnamon Bug which, although the picture suffers from photographer’s wobble, it is still possible to enjoy the vibrant colour if not the dramatic pattern.

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It was very busy with cyclists along the path, lots of parents with children riding alongside or hitched on the back, and the occasional walkers and runners.  Everyone appeared to be in good spirits, out enjoying the warm afternoon’s sunshine and thankful to escape the lock-down for the day’s brief exercise.  The air was full of drifting goat willow seeds floating on the breeze and the over-powering scent of may flowers which are in full bloom.  This is not a scent I like and often find it slightly nauseating but some people love it.  What I love is the start of the insect season proper!  The warm sun has tempted them out to bask or wallow or feast on the pollen of the newly opened flowers.

We spotted another new species, the Cocksfoot moth, which we saw in numbers on both a buttercup and the first flowering hogweed of the year.  These micro moths and tiny beetles are so difficult to see and even more difficult to get into focus on the camera but so worth while when we manage it.

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We always wonder why we never seem to find any insects on the Cow Parsley which lines every path with profusion and yet there were already moths and beetles in the only two Hogweed which had come into flower.

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Update 16.5.2020:  The cavalry have arrived in the person of Steven Falk (British Hoverflies: An Illustrated Identification Guide) on twitter who has kindly identified the hoverfly above as a male Platycheirus manicatus.  Frustration and defeat have been banished – we will sally forth with renewed enthusiasm and now take on any hoverfly we see with confidence…... Hmmm…

So many insects that we were unable to identify, a rather beautiful hoverfly which may or may not be a Migrant hoverfly, small beetles, a ladybird which we think might be a 14-spot, an insect examining the earth which may have been a hairy hoverfly or a not very hairy bee.  A relief then to see that the insect lying asleep in an incurving dandelion was a female common Earwig which even we could identify with confidence!

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A confetti of small pimples scattered all over the wych elm leaves were revealed to be the eggs of the common elm gall which evidently turn red as the season passes – we must remember to check.

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By the time we had walked up and down the path, we were relieved to sit and rest on the picnic bench.  Since the clearing of the area around the apple trees there is of course only the occasional butterfly and no birds to watch but it is nevertheless pleasant to sit in the sun and we can always watch the cyclists and runners with their dogs racing up and down the path.  One distraction was the small spider which landed on my leg, he also ran up and down a bit and then hopped off but when we reached home we eventually identified it as a jumping (of course!) Zebra spider.  For such a tiny little dot on the landscape, he was surprisingly elaborately patterned, but maybe he needed it on the vast grasslands out there!

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Plentiful birdsong with lots of Warblers in evidence, Willow Warbler, Blackcap, Common Whitethroat, Lesser Whitethroat and Chiff Chaff – all our usual summer migrants but sadly of course no Nightingale.  Other singing from the more common Chaffinch, Robin, Blackbird, Wren and Blue Tit with the wonderfully longed-for summer sound of a trilling Skylark.  In addition, there were Crows, Pheasants, Buzzards and of course Wood Pigeons.

1st May 2020 / Temp: 13.5-14.5 / 1.20pmDSCN9554 (3).JPG

A sunny afternoon with cloudy spells and a cold, blustery westerly wind tossing the newly leafed branches of the trees and scattering apple and hawthorn petals up in the air where they fell like autumn leaves.  Not the May-day weather we dream of during the long dreary days of winter, but welcome absence of rain for the first time this week.

Ambling along the wet and mossy stretch of grassland between the cycle path and the line of trees and scrub which forms the border, we suddendly caught sight of a white winged insect fluttering so fast it was impossible to identify it.  When it rested, we saw a moth, unknown to us, but which we thought was probably a White Ermine.  It proved difficult to photograph as it rested so briefly before it set off again fluttering non-stop.  We checked our FSC moth guide which suggested a female Muslin moth.  As we hadn’t seen either before and the only way of establishing the species was that one was bigger than the other we plumped for the Muslin moth for no other reason than wishful thinking.  Whatever the species, she does make a rather lovely Queen of the May!

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The same area is home to lots of Barren Strawberry (another first) and the beautiful bacon & egg plants, bird’s foot trefoil.  We never see them without feeling hot summer sun on our backs and dozens of feasting small blue butterflies – not today unfortunately but a promise that the summer is only just over the horizon.  The cow parsley is now making a good showing amongst the red campion, bluebells, tall ground ivy, bird’s eye speedwell and white dead nettle.  Plenty of cowslips along the edges of the path and the vetches, both bush vetch and surely rather early tufted vetch.  The first sighting this year of red clover, herb bennet, hawkweed and dove’s foot cranesbill.  We even spotted a clump of a garden escape, perennial cornflower, with their strikingly strong colouring.

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Robins, Chiff Chaffs, Blackbirds, Chaffinches, Wrens aplenty but also a Spotted Flycatcher, a Blackcap trying to out-sing a Willow Warbler but challenged by several Whitethroats, also singing lustily.  A  Swallow was sighted but an outrider as we didn’t see any more although we did see a Kestrel, heard a Raven, saw lots of Phesants striding the adjoining newly harrowed field, caught a quick flash of a Magpie and of course the usual Wood Pigeons and Crows.

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Not that many butterflies which we found surprising but possibly the blustery wind was proving too much for them.  We saw a few Brimstones but mainly Orange Tips, both male and female and then spotted our first sighting of a Small White this year.

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Having seen so many female Orange Tips it was difficult to be sure but the under-wing confirmed they were indeed Small Whites.

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Finally, we rested on one of the benches and watched a Buff-tailed bumble bee, very frequent bees along the cycle path, completely oblivious to us as it concentrated on scratching and scratching at the earth between the plants.  The patch was a very open, tree-less, shrub-less area of rough grass, clover etc so it seemed an unlikey site for a nest but we couldn’t think what else the bee would be doing.  The only other bees were the Tree bumblebees, hardly any honey bees and just the odd one or two hoverflies.

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A walk along the cycle path wouldn’t seem complete without spotting a common lizard basking in the sun or sheltering among the grasses on top of any one of the dozen or so yellow meadow-ant hills along the embankment.  And today was no exception, after a great deal of diligent searching we spotted this little fellow, almost completely camouflaged by the undergrowth.

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To our great sadness, no sign or sound of Nightingales.  The joy of sitting on a grassy bank on a late afternoon in May, surrounded with the sound and scents of early summer and listening to the extraorindarily beautiful song of the Nightingale is a memory whose sharpness is beginning to recede.  Each empty season is harder to bear than the last as hope fades and becomes more forlorn; it has become almost like the loss of a loved-one, an aching loss of which one is always aware but still refusing to believe they are gone and have been lost forever.

25th April 2020

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Great excitement, John Hansford was out at 6.40am this morning and captured this marvellous footage of one of the two Roe Deer he saw.  Our sightings have always been brief or too far away to get a good photograph let alone video footage, so we are thrilled.

By the time he left at 8.15am he had also seen 7 Skylarks (including 3 chasing each other low just above the ground)  22+ Common Whitethroat, 1 Lesser Whitethroat, 3 Garden Warblers, 18+ Yellowhammers, 2 Willow Warblers, 4 Blackcaps, 5 Chiffchaffs.

To add icing on the cake, he had a message from an ornithologist friend who heard a Cuckoo along the path!  John was understandably devastated that owing to lockdown he could not immediately go back and hear it but it’s just a matter of time….  What great news – the Cuckoo is a Red List bird and the first time one has arrived on the path – it now appears that the young man on the bicycle earlier in the month wasn’t teasing us with a recording after all and the Cuckoo we heard was genuine.  Oh ye of little faith….

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A remarkable photograph and film footage of one of the three Garden Warblers John Hansford saw along the cycle path today.  Garden Warblers are summer migrants who arrive in April and are such shy birds they are most likely to be heard rather than seen so we’re grateful to John for sending the footage. Follow the link below, you can see and hear the bird singing his heart out.  John also spotted two Amber List Willow Warblers – good to hear all the migrants arriving.    pic.twitter.com/EdSOYF471a

16th April 2020 / Temp: 19.5 / 2.10 – 3.50pmDSCN9396 (3).JPG

A beautifully warm, sunny spring afternoon with a south-easterly breeze keping the air fresh, how glorious to be out in the sunshine after 23 hours lock-down.

The path is very, very busy with at least 40 plus cyclists, about a dozen or so walkers and runners, several with small children.  It was odd to see so many people after the quiet  streets of the town which were almost deserted  The sheer press of almost coninual passing chattering cyclists together with the rumbling sound of farm machinery spreading fertiliser from a spinner and a delivery tractor trundling up and down the field meant that it wasn’t the calm and quiet walk we have become used to during the quieter winter months.

The path is always much busier on fine weekends in spring and summer and particularly through the school holidays so its no surprise that coronavirus lockdown days should attract more visitors during exercise time.  To have this traffic free path filled with birds, wild flowers, butterflies and bees threading through miles and miles of mostly quiet countryside is a boon everyone is justifiable grateful for.

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Wonderful to see all the trees either in flower or displaying their fresh, pale green leaves.  The Ash flowers which were in tight bud only a week or so ago have opened up their purple-red buds to display their golden green tassels plus, although the blackthorn and pussy willows are going over, their loss is more than compensated for by the beautiful wild cherry blossom, Wych Elm pale green seed clusters and cream Dogwood blossoms as well as more and more wild flowers blooming.

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Our wild cherry blossom while may not matching those rightly famous Japanese trees but they have a quieter, more subtle, perhaps even less strident beauty scattered along hedgerows or mixed with other trees.

No sign of lizards today, probably hiding from too many people, but we spotted 4 or 5 Tree Bumblebees, 3 Beeflies, 8 or 10 St Mark’s flies (early) hanging about above the apple trees in the inimitable way, Drone flies, Honey bees, and 9  Brimstone (M) 1 (F) 1 Speckled Wood, 9 Orange Tip (M) 3 (F) and a single Peacock butterfly.

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Tree Bumblebees

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Lots of plants newly opening, Cowslips, Ground Ivy, Birds Eye Speedwell, Bluebell, Wood Spurge, Garlic Mustard, Arum Lillies, White Deadnettle, Dandelion, Cow Parsley, Dog Violet, Bush Vetch, Red Campion, Herb Rober, Primroses, Hop Trefoil, Stichworth, Field Speedwell, Groundsel and Ribwort Campion.

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Chaffinches, Robins, Blackbirds, Whitethroats and Chiff Chaffs were all in good song, but the Yellowhammer was reduced to just single chirps, the Buzzard was wheeling overhead mewing forlornly and the usual Pheasants and Crows were skulking about.  Sadly, still no sign of Nightingales – not singing because there too many people?   Or is that just a despairing hope and they have still not returned.

16th April 2020-V-Vn5cs.jpgHolly Blue c. John Hansford

John Hansford was also at the path today and he thought he saw us but hidden as I was under a navy-blue fisherman’s hat, and he was sailing past on his wife’s bicycle, he wasn’t sure enough to stop!  He was as deft as ever with his camera, managing to capture a Holly Blue butterfly (above).  We were so pleased because we thought we had spotted a couple together but it was such a fleeting sight and there were no hollies around, we thought we must have been mistaken.  He also saw lots of Brimstones, Orange Tips and two Speckled Woods as well as the Holly Blues.

He spotted two Common Whitethroats and 2 Song Thrushes.  He said “The song thrushes were ridiculous. A pair collecting food and at one point one was around my feet!”

EJ76k3lh.jpgBrimstone butterfly c. John Hansford

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Happy Easter! 

John Hansford borrowed is wife’s bicycle and managed a short dash to the cycle path and captured this great photograph of a Brown Hare – his gift of an Easter bunny!  He spotted 8 Brimstone, 9 male Orange Tip, 1 Comma and a Holly Blue butterfly and saw 2 pairs of Marsh Tits, a Willow Warbler, a Moorhen and also managed to capture this lovely photograph of a Song Thrush.

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9th April 2020 / Temp: 14-17 C / 10.45 amDSCN9272 (2).JPG

It is nearly 4 weeks since we have been able to visit the cycle path so we were determined to check it out today.  Our exercise allowance time wasn’t sufficient to do our usual walk so,  keen to check if the nightingales have returned, we started at the Mells Old Station end.  It was the most glorious of spring mornings, full sun, light breeze, endless blue skies and the air so fresh and clear it was wonderful to be out, if only briefly.  We hadn’t walked far when two things became obvious – an explosion of flowering plants and trees and lots and lots of birds singing!

DSCN9282 (4).JPGEarly Forget-me-not

A newly emerging horsetail, large purple dog-violets, primroses, the first cowslips, bluebells, field speedwell, red campion, lesser celandine, dog’s mercury, arum lillies, white and red deadnettle as well as dandelions en masse, a few bush vetch, early-forget-me-not and ground ivy in profusion looking more striking than we had ever seen them, their blue flowers deep and bright.  The deep red-purple Ash trees buds were bursting into flower, as were the delicate spring green Norway Maples, the newly displayed Horse chestnut leaves are almost autumnal in the vividness of their colour and the fragile white Blackthorn blossom and yellow Pussy Willow catkins shout spring from every hedgerow.

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There seemed to be bumblebees everywhere, most buff-tailed but many too fast for us to identify, although we did manage to see a dark-edged bee fly.  Drone and hover flies up in the tree blossom, a sweat bee feeding greedily on a dandelion which we think may well have been a bronze farrow bee, black ants also tucking into the dandelion nectar, several 7-spot ladybirds and one 14-spot ladybird, so tiny we almost missed it, sun-bathing on the leaves.

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Lovely as all the bees and other insects are, what draws the eye of course, are the butterflies.  The first sighting of several – Speckled wood and Comma – but the most common were my favourite butterfly, the Brimstones (both the beautiful clotted cream coloured male and the almost white female).  In previous years they have always been the first to appear but we have been seening Small tortoiseshells for weeks before spotting our first Brimstone – how lovely they are.  No Small tortoiseshells today but plenty of Peacocks and another first sighting of several beautiful Orange Tips.

EVQB8j4UYAIsnfF.jpgOrange Tip butterfly / copyright – John Hansford

Finally, the birds!  Our first Blackcaps of the season, Chiff-Chaffs, Blackbirds, Common Whitethroats, Song Thrush, Great Tits, Robins, Long Tailed Tits, Blue Tits (visiting the nest boxes with nesting material) Green Finches, Gold Finches, Rooks, Ravens, Buzzards, Wood Pigeons, Crows and Pheasants.  Quite a haul, most making their presence hears at top, top volume!  Sadly no Nightingales, but it may be a little too early here.

Lesser Whitethroat 2.JPG Lesser Whitethroat / copyright – John Hansford

At least a dozen walkers and runners and more than two dozen or so cyclists catching their allocated sunshine and exercise, one of whom was rather amusing.  He called out as he approached “Cuckoo!  Have you heard the Cuckoo!” and cycled on when we clearly heard a Cuckoo’s distinctive call just after he turned out of sight.  The first Cuckoo ever heard along the cycle path – a coup surely?  Or a bit of a card with his recording playing on top volume?  Hmm… we thought probably the latter!

Still, compensation in the form of a common lizard skittering off at top speed into the thick grass from the top of the yellow ant hill was satisfaction enough, even though we only caught sight of his back and tail – how they love the embankment, south-facing, warm and sheltered, it seems their perfect habitat.

16th March 2020 / Temp: 10-11.5 C / 1.45pm – 4.05pmDSCN9019 (2).JPG

Glorious wall to wall blue skies and full sun which felt warm and springlike, encouraging the common lizards to come out to skitter between the coltsfoot and bask on the

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embankment, sweet violets (both white and purple) to flower and the pussy willows to pull on their brightest yellow fluffy pollen jackets.

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Ground Ivy, the first Cowslips, a wooded slope scattered with Primroses, and Lesser Celandines lining the path with the occasional bright blue Bird’s Eye Speedwell  brightened the walk and the first full flowering of the delicate white Blackthorn flowers The chill wind kept the air crystal clear and it felt marvellous to be out and walking away from all the dire coronavirus news and rest our eyes on awakening spring and our ears on bird song which to our delight included two Skylarks trilling and trilling high in the blue sky above.  We had barely arrived before we caught sight of a Small Tortoiseshell butterfly which is our first butterfly of the season and spotted another when we reached Mells Station.

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Half a dozen or so Hoverflies were noted, one exploring but most just basking, perfectly still on a leaf or stone unlike the fat noisy Early Bumblebees (probably queens) who whizzed past at top speed flashing their red tails, before examining the rough grass and tangled plants, never settling, too fast to photograph, and eventually disappearing into possible nest sites.

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Half-hidden among the trees on a bed of wood chippings were a group of what might be brown cup fungus which Naturespot refers to as Piziza varia as evidently there are so many species it is impossible to identify without the help of a microscope.  A relief then to spot Physicia adscendens on a gate which, although it is a first sighting on Colliers Way, is a familiar lichen to us.

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It was encouraging to see and hear such a wide variety of birds, including hearing and seeing our first Chiff Chaff of the season and hearing several others as we walked.  Lots of Blackbirds, Robins, Wrens, Wood Pigeons and Pheasants of course, a solitary Blue Tit and one Goldfinch, a Buzzard, a Raven and spotting two Red-Legged Partridges made a welcome change from the usual absence of any life at all on the adjoining ploughed field.

Quite a few people about both dog walkers, runners and lots of cyclists, including a group of eight or ten we had noticed sitting outside the Mells Cafe and a runner who stopped while I was examining Jericho bridge looking for lichen who thought I was looking for geocache.  During the course of conversation he solved something which had been puzzling us since last July when we found the small plaque attached to the puzzle picnic bench by the orchard.

Evidently he was one of a group of 12 people who set off one afternoon to seach for a geocache hidden near Conduit Bridge by Ro-Sham-Bo whose puzzles were always fiendishly difficult to find; they were unsuccessful that day but two of their number did manage to find it later, and the plaque must have been put there by one of the group (or even Ro-Sham-Bo!).   He hadn’t heard of or seen the plaque and as he was running that way said he would check it out; when I saw him later on his way back he said that when he reached the orchard a group of people were drinking tea sitting on the bench so he decided he would go back another time.

Good to have one puzzle solved!

And now for something completely different…

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          Living Willow Sculpture in the making

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20th February 2020 /  Temp: 6.5 C / 3.20pm – 4.35pmDSCN8859 (2).JPG

This photograph of a calm, sunny rural scene with rolling meadows belies the reality – the wind through the trees behind us sounded more like an advancing steam train, the ground was saturated underfood, the stream swollen and turbid, the ivy strewn floor of the wood was under water and we had just been caught in a sharp icy rain shower and had retreated to the woods in the hope of some protection!

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There were three or four fallen trees in the wood, two uprooted and the others broken off by the root but they looked well-rotted, perhaps not surprisingly given the amount of water run-off from the adjoining field plus storm Ciara followed by storm Dennis ripping up trees across the country.

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Disappointing to note that one of the fallen trees sported the only script lichen we had been able to find, but glad we managed to log and photograph it before it fell.

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We spotted what we thought might be tiny button lichen (amandinea punctata) but further research tells us that it is more likely to be lichenicolous fungus, a parastitic fungus which lives on lichen as host, in this case script lichen.  Lichen is already so very difficult to pin down and identify, but one of a possible 3,000 odd lichenicolous fungi would be totally impossible so it was heartening to see a good crop of jelly ear fungus which is easy enough for everyone to identify!

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Very few birds around – a few Blackbirds whizzing across the path, two Buzzards flying low over the trees, Robins singing, Wrens scuttling through the undergrowth, such a large flock of Jackdaws and Rooks flying over they looked quite dramatic against the clear blue sky, Wood Pigeons and Crows of course and the inevitable squawking of Pheasants from the fields.

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Even fewer flowers, Dog’s Mercury and a few clumps of rain-soaked and bedraggled lesser celandines and the occasional rose hips were the sum of it.  Lots of walkers, several with lively dogs who can spot clean cords a mile off and make sure to leave their marks, every one in good humour, enjoying the bright sunshine and scintillating air, relieved to see a break from the relentless rain.

12th February 2020 / Temp: 4 C / 9.35am – 11.35am

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For once the weather forecast was bang to rights – Temperature 4 C, feels like 1 C, and so it did, due to the “gentle” south westerly wind.  It wasn’t helped by the sharp rain shower which caught us out soon after we had started walking but it is always astonishing how quickly we adjust to the cold and walking as briskly as we could (a slow hobble!) when the rain stopped and the sun came out, it soon felt warm enough to be wonderfully envigorating, particularly when a faint rainbow appeared in the sky in front of us, beckoning us on.

Large parties of finches, mainly Chaffinches but at least one Goldfinch, were flitting through the trees and bushes on either side of the path as we walked, quite a number of Robins, singing away, Blackbirds, Wrens, a Great Tit, a flock of 30-40 Fieldfares, a warbler (which looked like a Chiff Chaff) and of course the usual Wood Pigeons, Pheasants and Crows.  We saw first one and then later three more Buzzards, wheeling and mewing low over the trees, a Raven and on the way back a Kestrel, hovering over the field.   As John saw a Kestrel on his last visit and we also saw one along the river a week ago, and one up on the downs a few weeks before that, it appears that Kestrels may be returning after a period where we rarely saw them at all.

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Lots of Dog’s Mercury everywhere under the trees, and Lords & Ladies spotted leaves, white deadnettle, a single dandelion in yellow bud, more and more golden catkins on the hazels, and the pussy willows showing white tips all hinted at the turning of the season, confirmed by our first sight of clumps of primroses on the usual bank where we have seen them in December and a small clump of sweet violets on the embankment.  All very tentative, but in plain sight!

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Very pleased to spot the jelly ear fungus on a twig fallen from one of the crab apple trees where we used to see lots but haven’t seen any for a year or so.

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In that little thicket the trees are smothered in ivy, the fruits of which were fat and ripely black, good news for the birds as it promises to become considerably colder in the new few days.

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What looked like an old rabbit warren of eight or nine burrows next to the Mells Estate fields in the lumpy, bumpy patch of moss and dog’s mercury strewn ground still looked abandoned as we couldn’t see any disturbed earth or droppings and yet…. the openings were clear of fallen leaves and branches so maybe they are providing a home for other small mammals.

The green algae of trentepohlia sp. caught the eye, the clear sunlight highlighting its bright orange powder-like lichen coating the crevices of several trunks of a group of trees, particularly vivid against the dull brown bark and bright green moss.

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As to the lichen splattering the limestone blocks of the bridge, they continue to be a mystery to us as we have been unable to identify any of them with absolute certainty; however, as this very brief interlude of sunshine and dry weather is forecast to break tonight and the heavy rain storms return, perhaps identifying lichens might prove to be a puzzle with which to occupy ourselves when we are again tied to the house – a divertion from watching rain lashing against the window panes.

14.3.2020:  Since writing the above, we believe we have identified the powdery green/yellow sulphur crust below – Psilolechia lucida appears to be a match, evidently it often grows in the crevices in the base-poor rock of dry stone walls, and the old railway bridges are built of limestone.

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but we did rather love an enterprising spider’s strategically placed web!

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Lots of cyclists, runners, dog walkers also dashing out between the storms, including a young woman runner from Mells who told us of a tree blown down across the path west of the bridge near Mells Station; she had felt sorry for an older man having difficulty lifting his bicycle over the tree to continue his journey to Radstock (this was the second fallen tree in a matter of weeks – an indication of the force and severity of recent storms).  She always rang Sustrans to report fallen trees or other concerns – it’s great to have people who volunteer as casual wardens caring for the Way.

We also chatted to a couple of intrepid old gentlemen who had cycled over from Limpley Stoke and were delighted to be directed to the Mells cafe to enjoy hot soup and the chance to warm fingers and toes.  We also began to hurry back as the clouds looked increasingly threatening, not that the rain was likely to bother the flock of Jackdaws and Rooks spread out across the ploughed field – they looked settled for the duration.  Always reassuring to see Rooks, given their present serious fall in numbers.

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John Hansford writes “Arguably the most sensational sound of the Somerset countryside.  I’m now dreaming of Spring and the days getting longer.  Sit back and listen!”

4th February 2020

BTO’s infographic of UK’s most common breeding birds.  For more detailed analysis see:

https://www.bto.org/our-science/publications/peer-reviewed-papers/apep-4-population-estimates-birds-great-britain-and

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20th and 21st January 2020

A message from John Hansford which although he says it was quiet bird wise, he saw a rather more interesting clutch than our visit on the 15th.  How exciting to see a flock of Golden Plover!  Years ago it was not infrequent to see Golden Plover feeding in the fields but now a rare sight and a new species to Colliers Way.

Pleasing that John spotted three Mistle Thrush and also a Chiffchaff so early – it must be spring!  Although it’s more likely to be one of the growing numbers of Chiffchaffs who over-winter here.  If the weather stays mild, they can find enough insect food to sustain them during the coldest months and the considerable clouds of winter gnats all along the path through this damp autumn should have been more than enough to feed them up.  If do they survive, they will have the advantage of getting to their breeding grounds before the summer migrants and secure the best territories.

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“My first visit of the year this afternoon to the cycle path, not overly enjoyable due to a very high number of dog walkers, most dogs off leads and no sign of any owner carrying a poo bag! Quiet bird wise, 3 Mistle Thrush, 2 Song Thrush, 6 Redwing, 15 Fieldfare, 5 Bullfinch, 1 Chiffchaff, 1 Kestrel, 2 Buzzards. I didn’t count the number of Robins but there are plenty between conduit bridge and the disused railway wagon.”

“I forgot to send my second message yesterday, a flock of Golden Plover was a first for me at Mells Down”

15th January 2020 / Temp: 7.5 C / 2.30pm – 3.45pm

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A brief interlude of sun between days of relentless rain temped us out but once we felt the bitter north-easterly wind it quickly drive us down into the shelter of the woods to escape the full blast.

Winter days walking along between high banks topped with lines of ash treesmeans little sunlight falls onto the path but it was so cheering to see it lighting up the bare branches being tossed by the wind and there was still enough light to see that the tracks leading up to the Badger setts were well worn and covered with prints, so the Badgers must be pretty active.

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Some of the fallen hazel catkins are surprisingly at least 2 inches long and already yellow where they have been exposed to the sun while the catkins on the trees in other more shaded parts of the wood are for the most part small and brown and still winter shriven.DSCN8685 (3).JPG

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The thick layers of years of dark brown leaf-mould coating the banks meant the signs of a fox’s kill, a scattering of colourful Pheasant’s quills blunted by the fox’s careless jaws are clearly visible and catch the eye.  Farther down the path we saw two wood pigeon’s scattered feathers, some distance apart but also showing similar signs of fox – a splay of feathers, no sign of head or body.

Both Pheasants bred for the shoot and Wood Pigeons over populate these woods so it’s good that the foxes are active keeping the numbers down and giving themselves a good meal.

Nearly all of the fallen logs have their Turkey Tail or Hairy Curtain Crust bracket fungus as their decoration of choice.  Most of the fungus has disappeared but the Scarlet Elfcup make for vivid splashes of colour among the moss and leaf litter.

Everywhere in the same leaf litter are hazel nut and acorn shells, new and old, signs not only of squirrels but also wood mice and bank voles.

Almost every surface and branch of most of the trees is adorned with a choice selection of lichen and bright, brilliantly emerald green moss like sagging socks coating their thin trunks and everything that doesn’t move which makes the woodland look more like deepest Devon or Ireland than Somerset.

Winter is also a time when small creatures look for safe and dry places to sit out the season, preferably in the case of this what appears to be a tree slug cosily tucked in to a crevice under the bark of a ash branch between the moss and couple of King Alfred Cakes or cramp ball fungus.

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There was a time when men carried a couple of this dry fungus in their pockets to use as fire lighters.  We often feel tempted to break one off to see if it works and also to cut one open to check the rings which clearly show each year’s growth, but somehow we always decide to leave them growing.

The surprise sighting of the afternoon was what looked like a ground beetle on the inside wall of the small bridge carrying the farm track over the disused railway line.  The walls  are always in shade so their very dankness provides the perfect conditions for Maidenhair Spleenwort, mosses, lichen and jelly fungus to thrive but although we often stop to check, this is the first time we have seen anything other than snails on the walls.

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We very soon abandoned our attempt at naming the species, daunted by the sheer number of ground beetles and our failure to photograph the insect’s head – always a problem where possible identification is concerned, but he was certainly a handsome beast. Here is a close-up for the more knowledgeable amongst you to suggest a species name.

Some adult ground beetles do over-winter and remain active, although they mostly come out to feed at night so it was surprising to see it in the afternoon.

Although the day was drawing in which made the light under the bridge very gloomy so perhaps the beetle thought it was night time and hunger persuaded him to forage early.  Did he spend his days tucked into the crevice in the wall?

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Lovely to spot a group of lords and ladies (arum lillies) leaves beginning to unfurl, and then to see the honeysuckle beginning to leaf, it’s the shrub we always notice first – both signs that winter may be loosening it’s grip, new growth carolling the coming season.  Oh how we long for spring when maybe it will stop raining!

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Very little bird life, but we heard a Raven’s croak echoing close by, a Jay’s screech, parties of noisy Tits and a Magpie.  We saw the usual birds – Robin,  Crow,  Wren and several Blackbirds and of course the ever present Wood Pigeons and Pheasants.

As we began walking up the hill towards home we watched the marvellous winter scene of a flight of hundreds of Jackdaws flying up the valley towards their roost in Newbury Firs, no chattering or calls just the sound of their wings, nothing seemingly wanting to disturb the quiet of the day.

A little later, from another direction, we caught sight of a large flock of Fieldfares also silent, also flying over our heads towards the Firs to be joined shortly afterwards by a smaller flock of Redwings heading in the same direction.  The Firs woodland with its tall, mature trees, must become very crowded on a cold winter’s night!!

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3rd January 2020 / Temp: 7.5 C / 1.45pm – 3.15pm

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Sun, cloud, rain shower, rainbow, stiff north-westerly wind and the usual mass clouds of winter gnats everywhere.  A few birds but not at many as we expected – Blackbird, Robin, Green Woodpecker, Magpie, Great Tit, Wren and of course Wood pigeons and Pheasants.

Lots of dog walkers, children walkers, runners (Kilmerston and back, training for 50k Brecon Beacons challenge!) family cycling parties on the path so we decided to climb up into the woods.  For such a relatively narrow stretch of woodland it always offers something of interest.  Variable oysterling fungus decorating a branch, scattered Pheasant breast feathers caught in the moss of another branch, Buzzard or Sparrowhawk?  Both are reguarlarly seen.

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Wood Pigeon feathers scattered across the ivy choked floor, no sign of the body but the quills are intact so probably a Sparrowhawk.  Clear signs of animal gnaw marks on a rotting log, in all probability a Badger searching out roots, worms and insect larvae hidden inside the logs.  Another possibility is Roe Deer as we have in the past found discarded antlers around this spot, one of which when viewed under the lens showed the distinctive fine stripes of a small rodent’s teeth marks where it has  gnawed at the bone, probably for calcium.

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A pile of various berry debris and their stones; the seeds have been split in half to get to the kernel so probably squirrel but possibly a small mammal.

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Finally a couple of lichen species, the first unidentified so we have appealed to Ispot for help.

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Success!  Phil from Ispot has written

“It looks very damaged, maybe something has removed/eaten all the outer lobes. It may be a Punctelia species, perhaps Punctelia subrudecta.” 

When I compared my photographs with those of Images of British Lichens it certainly seemed to me to be the correct identification.  http://www.lichens.lastdragon.org/Punctelia_subrudecta.html

Sue White also from Ispot wrote:

“The globose lumps of soredia suggest Physcia caesia but you can’t tell if the thallus would be pruinose.   So: first find one with healthy growth at the margins. Take its picture and check that it’s in focus and not shaky. Then lift part of the lichen off the substrate and take a picture of the underside – a lot of useful features are underneath.”
 

This is very helpful advice which I shall try and follow, although given my height and the height of the branch I may not be able to avoid camera-shake!   However, I very much take her point that a lot of useful features are underneath which I shall certainly follow in future. When I checked Physcia caesia with IBL it appears this particular lichen only grows on rock or paving stones so I will stick with Punctelia subrudecta and the second new species to our 2020 list.

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The second is we think Script lichen, the first new species of 2020 and one we had long hoped to see.  As sometimes happens, we were photographing the liverwort on the same branch (impossible to have too many photographs of liverwort!) and only spotted the Script lichen when we were looking at the photographs at home.  What very satisfying start to the new year, lots of interest even though there were few certainties.

31st December 2019

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The end of another year Walking the Way.  A sudden illness, protracted and severe, meant that some months of this year we were unable to visit the path and missed events like the Sustrans Wild Night Out Moth Event which was a great disappointment.  However, we battled on and still enjoyed those times that we could manage to hobble along, more slowly, not so far but consoled ourselves that our hobble was a good deal better than not being able to walk at all.

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There were many highlights throughout the year but the prize must of course go to the scarce and becoming rare Grizzled Skipper.  It was the first sighting along Colliers Way, the nearest previous recorded sighting being near Ammerdown, and there was great excitement when John Hansford spotted this one on the 9th June.  This area should be a good habitat and it would be wonderful if they began to breed here.

The Grizzled Skipper is one of the Priority species in the UK Biodiversity Action Plan and perhaps surprisingly there are many others from the list recorded along Colliers Way such as Small Heath, Wood White, Song Thrush, Herring Gull, Spotted Flycatcher, Commmon Bullfinch, Marsh Tit, Skylark, Common Linnet, Hawfinch, Corn Bunting, House Sparrow, Common Starling, Common Nightingale, Yellowhammer, Lesser Blackbacked Gull, Grape Hyacinth, Brown Hare, Grass Snake, Common Lizard, Hedgehog and Slow Worm.

87 new species were recorded during the course of 2019 – 36 insects, 22 plants, 10 fungus and 13 liverworts, mosses and lichens, a few animals and birds.  Come May the Hogweeds began flowering, by the solstice in June the Moon Daisies started blooming (a bumper year) and the insects exploded into life – for a time it seemed as it every bloom was visited by a bee, a hover fly, a beetle, a noon fly, ants, ladybirds and of course all of our butterflies and moths.

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How can we forget the excitement of seeing a male White Crab Spider half the size of the female, almost hidden in the bower created by the female, totally motionless on her back, waiting to mate?  Or  the wonderfully patterned Yellow and Black Longhorn beetle, the Red and Black Froghopper?  Or the day at the end of June when John Hansford counted 52 Marbled White and 18 Large Skipper butterflies?  Or finding Yellow Rattle for the first time in mid-July and watching male Chalk Hill Blues mud puddling at the end of July?  In late August John topped his June count by seeing a pretty staggering 60 Common Blue butterflies and in the same month reported 3 pairs of Spotted Flycatchers, including a juvenile.

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As in every year we clung desperately to summer but we had to let go and autumn brought its own rewards – seeing an adult Common Lizard with 3 juveniles atop a Yellow Meadow anthill in September and welcoming the fungus season with tiny delicate Angel’s Bonnets, lines of Trooping Funnel marching up the banks towards the Badge setts, Donk clinging to the limestone bridge, Pixie Cups adorning a wooden post, Whitewash lichen splashed on tree trunks and in November Polypodies with buttercup yellow spores and spotting our first ever Picture Winged insect while December’s disappearing plants revealing so very many small entrances to small mammals’ dens.

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So many good memories to store away and remember so that the heart-ache and anguish of the early part of the year was partially assuaged.  The total destruction of the Silver Washed Fritillaries’ and Commas’ wooded habitat, followed by the further blow when the Nightingales’ precious thorn scrub habitat was heavily encroached upon by heavy-handed contractors was painful to witness. [To read explanatory reply from Sustrans see entry dated 23rd May 2019]
 
While the damage was not forgotten nor was their loss less mourned when no Nightingale song was heard along the Way and the sum total of all sightings of Silver Washed Fritillaries was just 3, we were still able to take pleasure in the traffic free, herbicide and pesticide free path where many species thrive and there is much to discover and enjoy whilst Walking the Way.
 
 
 

25th December 2019 / 5.38am

Merry Christmas!

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“I heard a bird sing in the dark of December. A magical thing. And sweet to remember.” Oliver Herfor

In the dark quiet of Christmas morning before anyone else was awake, I opened a window and heard a Robin singing.  Moving and magical and also sweet to remember.

We later passed a Robin singing in a bare winter tree on our Christmas afternoon walk

9th December 2019 / Temp: 8.5 – 7 C / 1.55pm – 3.35pm

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A perfect winter’s day for walking – cool, brilliant sunshine and clear skies.  Once we dropped down in the lee of the embankment out of the blustery and icy north-westerly wind, our spirits rose and we set off along the path full of good cheer despite not much of interest to catch the eye.  We couldn’t fail to notice the deep puddles along the edges of the fields which emphasised how much rain we have endured during what has been the wettest October and November on record and shows no sign of easing up.  Farmers are increasingly worried about getting onto their water-logged acres and warn that shortages may inevitably lead to price increases.

As we passed a clump of trees we disturbed a single rake-thin squirrel who skittered away, leaping from branch to branch and set off a couple of handfuls of all the usual birds, Bullfinch, Robin, Wren, Chaffinch, Blue and Long tailed Tits, chattering Fieldfares as well of course Pheasants, Wood Pigeons, Crows and Gulls.DSCN8444 (2).JPG

Along the entire length of the path we kept coming  across intermittent swarms and billows of midges, the so called smoke of winter gnats.  Annoying though they are to walk through, it’s good to see food for the birds at a time of the year when there are so few insects about.

But perhaps the most intriguing aspect of walking through the countryside at this time of year is being able to see so many tracks across the grass and the many small mammal holes which the are exposed when the plants have died down.  Most are about 3-4cm is size, beautifully round,  often in the easily worked earthen banks of the winterbournes or along the main embankment, also softened by the incessant rains of this particularly wet autumn.

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We were unable to establish whether they were created by the often seen long tailed or bank voles, possibly shrew or mice, although wood mice seem to prefer open fields, however it matters little, just good to see plenty of small mammals thriving along the path.

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There were a few brave plants who had managed to produce flowers, the ever present white dead nettle, several yarrows and hawksbeards, red clover and a lovely hogweed, a bit drooping from the recent gales and incessant rain, but beautifully tinged with lilac-pink from cross-pollination, providing a nostalgic memory of hot summer days.

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And finally, we spotted quite a number of clumps of liverwort both on the banks of the stream and around the roots of hawthorn trees on steep sided banks below the hedgerows.

Liverworts are always so vividly green, and like the mosses, most striking in the drab winter months where most of the ground and landscape is empty of colour.  We also love their thick glossy leaves and their shapes – often frilled or forked, sometimes containing

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little cups.  We pass them unnoticed for most of the year but they come into their own on winter days, particularly when like today the sun is strong enough to make them shine as if they are varnished, glowing from their well shaded spots.

26th November 2019 / Temp: 11 C / 3pm – 4.10pm

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We managed a quick dash out between rain storms with yet more black clouds threatening.  It felt wonderful to be out in the fresh air, it was surprisingly mild and there was something rather fine in the late November afternoon light, despite a dark, damp dreary scene before us the sky was lit with patches of bright blue sky and peachy clouds.  The ground underfoot was soggy, waterlogged moss, scattered with bleached empty banded snail shells and clumps of hard rush meeting puddles verging on small shallow ponds as we squelched along.

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The remains of what looked like an old Blackbird nest was the sole decoration on a tree which only days before was afire with golden copper leaves; the rest of the shrubs and trees were equally desolate – it seemed that autumn had morphed into winter when we were busy looking the other way.

A very welcome diversion came in this otherwise lifeless aspect when a Sparrowhawk appeared, flying along the hedge and then hovering over the trees, swirling around in the wind which was fairly strong and soon we heard Blackbirds and Robins, Pheasants and Crows, Wood Pigeons and then a Raven croaking, which, given the darkening afternoon summoned up thoughts of Edgar Allen Poe.  A flock of Fieldfares and Redwings rising and flying, landing and repeating the same manouvre, always some way in front of us, always extremely lively.

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We scanned the bridge as usual looking for lichen or jelly fungus without success but spotted this little cluster of garden snails hibernating in a crevice between the cut stone.  Evidently they look for shelter after the first frost, often hibernate in groups, and remain in the safety of their hideout until spring.

One of the local farmers caught up with us and stopped to pass the time of day.  He was accompanied by a splendid Rhodesian Ridgeback bitch, lithe and beautiful, alert to his every move.  He was able to remember taking the train along this now disused track from Frome to the small derelict station nearby with its double platform, ticket office and waiting room more than fifty years ago; nothing of which remains but a small shed and some way down the track an abandoned guards van.

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The farmer also talked of ploughing his fields in September/October time and seeing a dozen or more Buzzards following his tractor, swooping down to feed on the worms as the earth was turned over.  He thought the seeds from the many plants along the scrub and embankment blowing seeds over his crops were no problem, save that is for the large bull thistles and even larger woolly thistles which spread their seed so profusely.  He was more worried by the incessant rainful of the past two months and the harm it was doing to his rain sodden fields but the impossibility of getting on the land to sow.

He walked on and we turned back as the dark clouds were moving closer and looked increasingly threatening when suddenly, exploding out of the trees, the sky above us was filled with a mixed flock of dozens and dozens of Fieldfares and Redwings – black sillouettes in the fading light but full of life and vigour and movement.  Something at least was showing vitality in this otherwise dead world!  They heralded the rain and as we hurried back along the path we got caught out by the first shower but avoided a thorough drenching of the full rainstorm by a matter of minutes.

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21st November 2019:   And the winner is…..?  Pheasant!  In their second email The Mammal Society wrote the following:

I’ve spoken to one of our experts about who they may have been left by. He said he had, had similar looking scats DNA tested before and they came back as pheasant so it might be that. He said squirrel droppings were normally rounder but not out of the question.” Tuesday 021.jpg

Pheasant roosting in a tree.

copyright Alex White www.appletonwildlifediary.wordpress.com 

Of all the many possibilities, Pheasants didn’t even make it to our list, but we should have followed the evidence.  Pheasants being reared for a local shoot in an adjoining field, the whitened bones of a pheasant carcass nearby, and the ideal Pheasant habitat for foraging and roosting – low hanging moss covered branches and lots of cover. We are most grateful to The Mammal Society for solving this week’s mystery!   Contact their website for their State of Nature Report 2019.     https://www.mammal.org.uk/

16th November 2019:    Neither fish nor fowl nor fresh red herring….  we spotted a surprising amount of scat  strewn along several mossy branches in a dense part of the wood on Wednesday but  despite extensive research, we have been unable to identify which creature has been using these branches as a latrine.  We noticed several entrances to dens during the afternoon but the nearest to this tree looked more like a brown rat burrow, given the amount of earth spoil outside so no help there.

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Eventually today we threw in the towel, gave up on our futile research and passed the problem over to The Mammal Society in the hope that one of their volunteers may be able to offer suggestions.  If any of our readers recognise these droppings, we would very much appreciate some help here!

13th November 2019 / Temp: 7.5 C / 11.30am – 1.10pm

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We decided to do our annual trek through the woods a little earlier than last year, as the wind was biting and the wood looked invitingly sheltered.  All the areas of woodland along the cycle path are navigable with care but as we penetrated deeper, the animal paths petered out, the fallen branches became thicker and more frequent, the dratted skeins of bramble caught around our legs, head and ears more and more fequently so it was quite a tiring battle with our own small jungle!

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However, the adventure was worth the effort.  A world of thick moss covered trees, innumerable species of lichen, liverwort, mushrooms and jelly fungus and our first sighting of polypodies which are pretty commonplace in other woods in the area but which we have never seen before here.

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Most we have seen have been so high up in full sized trees it was great to be able to scramble closer to these and examine the spores, some brown and dull but several glowing buttercup yellow, lighting up the gloomy afternoon.

Jackdaws, Rooks and Crows setting up their usual racket as they flew past and drew our attention to the pasture just partially visible through the trees.  Their demand for attention was challenged by noisy Pheasants (the totally stripped carcus of one we found discarded amongst the ivy – its eyes partially opened and untouched, strangely eerie against the stark white bones of its head and body) Wood Pigeons of course but also parties of tits flashing through the trees, mostly Blue Tits and Long Tailed Tits.  Bullfinches, Blackbirds, Robins and Wrens were much in evidence on the margins although the centre of the wood appeared totally absent of bird life despite copious amounts of hawthorn berry filled bird droppings decorating the branches.

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A young, small disc-like Leafy Brain jelly fungus, looking deliciously fruit like, bright strawberry pink unlike what was probably its parent plant close by, toffee brown and wrinkled.

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There were lots of crustose lichen painted on the trunks of the trees and along the branches.  The attractively coloured Bleeding Broadleaf crust above, shaded in tones of apricot and white set against the lime-wash splash of the sparkling and aptly named Whitewash species below, as if someone has been along with a paint brush and decorated the trees.

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A good many of the half hidden areas of fallen braches lying unseen have provided home for a variable number of lichen both on moss and ivy covered logs deep in the undergrowth, on braches of living trees but also on fence posts and gates, like these two beautiful specimens of Chewing Gum lichen, more of what we think of as the classic lichen, grey-green, knobbly and leaf edged.

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It was lovely to catch sight of a fallen branch festooned with Variable Oysterling fungus growing on the dead wood.  These had already turned buff coloured with age but still small shell-like, delicate and delightful.

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By now we were tiring, navigating banks and ditches and small winterbournes while climbing over and under thick branches and tangled ivy as we battled through the choke point towards the edge of the wood.  Frustrating to see the tree line so close but having such a fight to reach it, but reach it we eventually did and even managed, with considerable cursing and difficulty, to climb over the fence to the open stretch of path before us.

We sauntered down the hill towards home none the worse for our exertions and pleased to have explored the wood and even more pleased that it would be another year before we need hack our way all the way through the entire wood again!

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But the path had one more gift – a small insect perched on a large boulder which we believe might be a Picture Winged insect, given the time of year and it’s distinctive colouring.  Unfortunately the distance and focus wasn’t sharp so we would very much welcome any other suggestions!

As we walked on we were thrilled to see a good flock of at least 40 Redwings and a dozen or so Fieldfares, some flying over the path, others moving from one stretch of trees to another.  Always a redeeming feature of cold, dull days are the flocks of winter migrants which liven up the woods and skies, particularly when we hear the chatter of the Redwings which lift the spirits and make the heart sing.

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The Stinking Iris made another bright splash of colour, vying with the autum leaves still stubbornly clinging to the trees despite the frequent rain storms.  The sun never really managed to fully break through the cloud although we often caught glimpses of it through the branches – a real winter sun, low in the sky, pale and misty, casting a faint light on the moss strewn woodland floor.  Woods are beautiful in every season of the year but autumn always gives them a particular charm.

3rd November 2019EIdp1bEXUAE--UQ.jpgGoldcrest – copyright John Hansford

Twitter feed plus lovely photographs from John Hansford : 

Mells Down (Colliers Way) included 50+ Fieldfare at Dusk, 30+ Goldcrests, Kestrel, Treecreeper, Moorhen, Tawny Owl (Heard), Ravens, Song Thrush, Bullfinches, Linnets, Yellowhammers, Stock Doves etc.  

A goodly haul!  It’s great that you managed to see so many Goldcrests John – we never see that many, or too many Kestrels, but we often seem to hear Tawny Owls in the late afternoons in autumn and winter.

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Fieldfare – copyright John Hansford

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John Hansford also tweeted :
 

More Butterfly habitat destroyed on Mells Down cycle path, what’s wrong with these people that want to kill off all remaining nature @sustrans  

When we also saw the devastation a few days ago, we felt so disappointed and upset we turned back and went elsewhere.  A mere handful of Silver Washed Fritillaries and Commas survived last spring’s habitat destruction – this may prove to be the final coup de grace.  We can’t even bear to think of the loss of the Nightingales this summer due to a similar decision. It’s the age-old chasm between cherishing a wildlife habitat amongst the green desert of pesticide- sprayed fields with no birds, butterflies or insects and a managed recreation area.

We would infinitely prefer the margins and hedges left wild to provide a corridor for native species to flourish and survive, the stewards of the cycle path, having invested  in oak picnic benches and heritage apple trees, feel areas need managing as part of the facilites it offers to walkers and cyclists enjoying the undoubted health benefits of access to safe, traffic free paths.

5th November 2019

The following article in today’s Guardian (tweeted from John Hansford) reinforces  argument that if the depradation of land is not addressed, our descendants may not live to enjoy the benefits of the cycle path or anywhere else for that matter.  We all need to play our part – householders can plant trees and flowers rather than paving over gardens and stewards of the countryside can manage for the benefit of wildlife as well as people.

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/nov/05/europe-must-act-on-intensive-farming-to-save-wildlife-scientists-say

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Frome’s Missing Links Blog :

We had a fabulous day at the October Frome Independent Market, where there was also an information table sharing the work Frome’s Missing Links are doing to connect traffic free walking and cycling routes in and around Frome. A team of volunteers worked incredibly hard to organise and run the activities and a total of £1,322 was raised on the day.  The ceilidh at the Cheese & Grain Live Music venue raised a further £2,400 at what has now become an extremely popular annual occasion.

Money raised is being spent on an Environmental Impact Assessment and other requirements as part of a planning application which will extend the path  from Weylands in Frome, towards Selwood Lodge, and eventually join up with the Colliers Way route 24 from Great Elm to Bath.

29th October 2019 – Temp: 7 C / 9.50am – 11.35am

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October.  The clocks have changed bringing dark days and darker nights, the nights are drawing in, the days are growing shorter with mist covered mornings and rainy afternoons under overcast dull leaden skies – dreary, dank and chilly.  But…

The winter migrants are arriving in numbers, a large flock of 40 plus Redwings flying over the trees along the woodland walk, heading no doubt for the Hawthorn trees, Guelder rose and Dog rose briars, heavily laden with berries this year – a bumper crop.  As we walked farther down the path at least 20-30 noisy, chuckling Fieldfares took off en masse from an adjoining field and obliged us with a fly past.

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The leaves are changing, flame coloured, and every shade through orange, pink, gold and red, showy flamboyant leaves are replacing the dull green of early autumn and even on a dull day like today with heavy cloud cover threatening yet more rain, they light up the hedgerows and glow in the gloom.

No sign of insect life apart from a few midges, very few flowers, the odd white deadnettle, a few umbellifers, a scattering of bright pink herb robert, nothing to see, but…

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October is to fungus, moss and lichen as March is to daffodils and what a show they put on!  From the tiny, delicate Angel’s Bonnets to the large and stately Trooping Funnel; the strangely shaped White Saddle which looks for all the world like a melted candle to the modestly tinted Lilac Bonnets and past beautifully patterned Turkey tail fungus, first in many shades of grey to another in every shade of brown.

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Every branch seems to have its own small garden of lichens – Common Green Shield clinging tightly to the bark, Cartilage lichen blossoming in trails, Oak Moss (stag lichen) somewhere between the two and the wonderfully sunshine yellow Common Orange lichen (sometimes more aptly called Martime Sunburst, and the little discs are just like miniature suns).

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The fallen logs are covered with Swan’s-neck Thyme moss with their tiny stalks and bowed head seeds, stems of black footed chalk white Candlesnuff (often called staghorn) poking through the moss.

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Even the old railway bridge, constructed as it is from blocks of quarried limestone, sports its own specialised selection of  fungus and lichen alongside Common Pocket moss (above) the tiny Maidenhair Spleenwort ferns, Wall Rue and ivy-leaved toadflax, species like the splendidly named Donk, a jelly fungus and Opegrapha rupestris, a kind of black crust lichen thrive.

We have had so much rain recently that the large Ash log tucked close to the fence looked completely black and so the closely packed balls of scarlet slime mould looked startlingly vivid.  It was only by looking closely that we noticed they weren’t in fact balls but minute red lollipops on white stems – extraordinary!  My photograph was completely out of focus so I was glad to find the splendid photograph by Kim Fleming to illustrate their beauty – slime mould is totally unsuitable for such a lovely fungus.  Pixie cup lichen (another failed foto) the name given to describe the cluster of cups covering a wooden fence post is an infinitely more appropriate name as was pixie dust for the grey-green grains sprinkled over the lichen!

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Red Slime Mold - acryria ferruginea.jpgSlime mould (Trichia decipiens or Acryria ferruginea ) copyright Kim Fleming

By the time we had clambered up and down the steep bank, despite falling flat, to check the fungus and the Badgers (lots of activity around their setts and snuffle holes alongside the path), listened to the noisy chattering Jackdaws and Rooks, the screeching Jays and the mewing Buzzard circling overhead, it was time to turn back and climb the path for home.  Long-tailed Tits, Blue Tits, Bullfinches, Robins and Blackbirds twitterings and calls accompanied our walk, as did the Pheasant’s squawk and Wood Pigeons coo.

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Did we say October was dreary, dank and chilly and devoid of life?  Nonsense!  Even though the promised sun didn’t make an appearance, the leaves glowed, the birds sang, the fungus glowed in the gloom and we were so warm we were obliged to unbutton our coats and unravel our scarves – October is the perfect walking month!

8th October 2019 – Temp: 12.5 C / 9.30am – 11.20 am

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Welcome to the Brexit-free Zone which is the traffic-free path running through the heart of the Somerset countryside, far far away from the noisy bad-tempered clamour and stomach-sinking fear of the possibility of impending doom to the sound of bird song, swishing bicycle tyres, the mew of Buzzards wheeling overhead, the rumble of a tractor trundling over a stubble field and a distant farmer’s dog challenging all comers!

A cool fresh breeze but the sun was warm on our backs and the sky cerulean blue with mackerel clouds (never long wet, never long dry) – a welcome break from days and days of heavy rain with the promise of yet more to come.  So good to see shiny fresh conkers littering the ground which, together with acres of freshly ploughed rich brown earth, fields partially ploughed and others planted earlier with winter wheat already showing green, announces that autumn has well and truly arrived.

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We expected to see lots of fungi as we did on a recent walk through the wooded section of Colliers Way but today we saw very few; we didn’t expect to see insects, but we saw lots – Ivy bees around the Ivy flowers,  some newly open, some still in bud, hover flies, drone flies, wasps, flies, a fat loud bumblee and farther along the path more bees and hoverflies sunning themselves on the golden leaves of the old man’s beard with green-bottle flies, their vivid irridescent colours sparkling in the sunshine.

There were also a quite extraordinary number of small grove snails, clinging to single strawlike grass stems, on leaves and plants, in every colour it seems, from plain pale bleached grey to banded brown, yellow and orange to a deep burgundy coloured one which had climbed high, high up the Ivy bushes, why we have no idea.

Lots of the summer plants were still in flower, particularly Hawkweed Ox-Tongue which was everwhere, its bright yellow flowers enlivening the verges, but also a sprinkling of yarrow, red clover, white deadnettle, scabious, common hemp-nettle, greater knapweed, meadow cranesbill and even a single scarlet corn poppy.

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The trees and shrubs are thick with berries and seeds, the golden Hornbeam seeds hanging in tassels, like upside down pagodas and the Field Maple seeds which have taken on a deep rose pink shade, and scarlet necklaces of black bryony trailing across shrubs, tree trunks and field posts alike so everywhere we look is full of colour.

Both the heritage apples and the self-seeded crab apples are fully ripe, the grass surrounding the trees already littered by windfalls, some brown and rotting, which should attract passing hornets and wasps.  Every branch seems heavy with fruit – blackberries, sloes, hips and haws are fat and plentiful – untouched as yet but providing a good winter feast for wildlife, Redwings and Fieldfares and other winter migrants which are soon to arrive.

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We didn’t see a huge number of birds but there seemed more about and lots more singing than during our last visit.  We heard a Green Woodpecker yaffling somewhere nearby (we speculated whether he or a badger was responsible for delving into and collapsing one of the yellow meadow anthills we had passed), Bullfinches, Chaffinches, Blackbirds, Robins, a Linnet, and we watched a Raven being mobbed by three determined Crows.  There were Jackdaws and the inevitable Buzzard, a Stock Dove and, as always, plenty of Wood Pigeons and Pheasants.

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So many cyclists, an almost continuous stream, but almost every one cheerful, friendly and ringing their bells!  Such a help for us as we peer into the undergrowth or stand transfixed, binoculars clamped, totally unaware of anything around us as we watch a Buzzard circling or the colourful flash of a Green Woodpecker. A fair few runners and several dog walkers – everyone keen to catch a few hours of sunshine before the next front moves in, although by the time we turned for home, hurried on our way by dark threatening scudding rain clouds, the path had emptied.  No exciting finds, no fanfare, no drama, simply a quiet walk in autumn sunshine with a stiff breeze forcing fresh clean air into our lungs and, most importantly, with no sign of Brexit anywhere – what bliss.  Finally a shout out for all of those who have made this cycle path possible – Viva – may your tribe increase!!

25th September 2019 – Temp: 17C / 2.30pm – 3.40pm

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The Autumn Equinox two days ago marked a dramatic change to the weather from a long spell of beautiful sunny days and clear blue skies to cloudbursts and torrential rain where just a bit farther east of us they endured a month’s rainfall in one day.  Given the non-stop rain we were lucky to manage a quick walk through drizzle and gusty winds along the wooded section of the walk which sheltered us from the worst of the weather.

Very, very quiet with very few signs of activity, no insects apart from a few flies and a single Comma butterfly.  Few birds, a couple of Ravens, the usual Wood Pigeons, Pheasants and Gulls, a solitary Grey Squirrel leaping precariously from branch to branch but quite a few fungi and berry laden trees and shrubs in profusion.  The full panoply of autumn laid out before us in all its rich extravagance.  Necklaces of scarlet, green and yellow Black Bryony trailed across almost every hedge, joining perfectly ripe blackberries, the pale, tissue thin heart-shaped leaves of Bindweed and Hawthorn berry clusters so thick they blotted out the branches and leaves, the orange rosehips glowing in the uncertain light, clouds of Old Man’s Beard cloaking trees and hiding shrubs and the cream balls on the Ivy almost ready to burst into flower in time for the Ivybees arrival, and fresh diggings around the Badger setts.

Uncountable numbers of Oak galls blown down by the wind, lying scattered along the path we walked, crunching over the fallen acorns and hazel nuts many of which had already been broken open by squirrels and woodmice and their shells disgarded, thrown onto the moss covered logs or thick rich and dark leaf mould to join the bleached snail shells and occasional pheasant feathers.

We came upon a newly killed Wood Pigeon, lying on its back, totally perfect with no signs of injury apart from its missing tail feathers, its soft white and peach-coloured breast feathers pristine and beautiful, but the only mourners gathered around were six or more green bottles, crawling all over it.  We think we must have disturbed its killer, possibly a Sparrowhawk, but we saw no signs of one.

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This is the start of the fungus season proper as was evidenced by at first troops of Shaggy Ink Caps along the sides of the path, either singly (one at least 9 inches tall) or in groups of five or six or in one place fourteen.  Turkey tail bracket fungus on fallen logs and branches, a small clump of Conical Brittlestem and another of Stump Puffball and several other species, some nibbled, which we were unable to identify.

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It was  a couple of weeks earlier when we had our first sighting of the Meadow Saffron last year so it was more in hope than expectation that we returned to the same spot but to find no sign of them.  We have to content ourselves with last year’s photograph and memories and hope for better luck next year.

As we began to walk home the sun came out at last and lit up the trees some of which have begun to change to autumn colour, many are still summer green, the Cherry leaves are particularly striking, as the same tree will show leaves from fiery orange to red to purple and some Oak and Ash, Birch and Hazel leaves are already touched with gold.  To send us home with a song in our hearts was the sight of a small flock of Swallows swooping through the air – it’s autumn but summer isn’t quite forgotten!

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Join Sustrans on National Moth Night for for moth trapping and a bat walk and the morning after for small mammals and a wildlife wander : Fri, 27 Sep 2019, 18:00 – Sat, 28 Sep 2019, 12:00 ,Colliers Way Cycle Way, Off Hapsford Hill, Great Elm, BA11 3NS
We’ll meet at 6pm at the orchard at the Great Elm end of the Colliers Way to set up equipment and get into position for sunset at 7pm.  Our bat walk will finish around 8.30pm and you are welcome to leave then, or stay on for moth trapping till late.  If you can’t stay out late, or are eager for more, come along Saturday morning from 9.30am to see some of the moths we caught, to check the mammal traps set up the previous evening, and to take a wander along the path to see what else we can find.

13th September 2019

DSCN4233.JPGMarbled White – copyright John Hansford

Good to get the results of the butterfly count which gives a country wide view of butterfly numbers and some indication of which species have increased/fallen/remained the same over this last year.  Our concern has been two sites, Colliers Way and a two-mile stretch of the River Frome where we do the regular Otter survey, the first of which has shown a fall in overall numbers since last year [Marbled Whites up Common Blues up (nationally down) woodland species like Brimstones, Ringlets and Gatekeepers down (nationally up) and the river numbers have overall remained the same.

The most striking finding is the crash in sightings of the Comma butterfly along Colliers Way not matched by the river site or the country as a whole which saw an increase of 23%.  The other butterfly which suffered a drastic fall has of course been the Silver Washed Fritillary which in previous years one of the glories of the cycle path and where no more than a handful were seen in the entire season.  (The Silver Washed Fritillary is not listed in the Big Butterfly Count and has never been seen along the river)

As both of these butterflies are also predominantly woodland species, whose adults feed on bramble flowers, it is reasonable to suppose that the severe cutting back of trees and bramble early in the year reduced their habitat and so had an adverse affect on their numbers.  Impossible to know at this stage whether either species will recover, but as there appears to be no plan to restore their habitat (and of course the time it takes for trees to grow) it seems unlikely.  A sad loss.

Big Butterly Count Results

4th September 2019 / Temp: 17.5 C / 2.30pm – 4.20pm

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Cool, sunny intervals with a strong, gusty, south-westerly breeze, not the most ideal  afternoon for a butterfly count, but we did manage to see a reasonable amount – again falling numbers and a disturbingly lack of Comma and Silver Washed Fritillary compared to previous years – but the final count of 2 Red Admiral, 5 Painted Lady, 2 Common Blue, 1 Small Tortoiseshell, 1 Speckled Wood, 2 Large White and 12 Small White was also a fraction of the number John Hansford sighted only about a week ago, so perhaps it was simply the weather which caused the small count.

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Apart from this small burst of butterflies, mainly feeding on the buddleia, there were a few fat bumble bees and worker bees, a single dragonfly and a few moths but the most abundant flying insects were all the flies – flesh flies,  hover flies

DSCN7681 (3).JPGDrone fly – possibly Eristalis nemorum on Yarrow head

(including the beautiful Marmalade hover fly), drone flies, tachninid flies, Noon flies and  all feeding on the flower heads of yarrow, wild carrot, hedge parsley and thistle

DSCN7856 (3).JPGFlesh Fly

and a single ungainly Crane fly with its extraordinarily long, long legs, fluttering and tangling in amongst the grasses.

DSCN7671 (2).JPGCrane fly – Tipula oleracea

A beautiful Dryad’s saddle (or Pheasant’s Back) fungus – rather appropriately mimicking a leather cycle saddle, or a pull down / let down seat made of figured walnut or some other exotic wood on which to perch whilst admiring the view perhaps!

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They are an edible fungus although we have never tried them. They always look so striking on the tree.  Most people so we hear seem to cut them in strips, coat in flour then fry until golden or chop up and add them to soups or stews.

There appear to be plenty of Tachinid flies about – there are two large and one small pond in the fields adjoining the cycle path where these, and the dragonflies and mayflies, which we see quite surprisingly see on the path, are probably breeding.

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We always check the Yellow Meadow anthills, more out of habit than expectation, so imagine our astonishment when we caught sight of this beauty

DSCN7692 (3).JPGAdult Common Lizard on anthill

and when he skittered off at top speed we were even more astonished to see three small lizards, juveniles this time, unmoving, frozen still, extraordinarily well-camoflauged amongst the fine sandy soil and dried grasses.  We have seen lizards in the spring and not infrequently in high summer, but never this late and if, as we understand it, the young are born in July, these cannot be very old.

DSCN7691 (2).JPGThree juvenile Common Lizards

We reached Mells old station and began walking across what was probably the yard – a wide badly drained area of thin subsoil sprinkled with stunted willows, saplings, soft rush, reeds, sedge and tall meadow grasses which in winter is thick underfoot with squelchy moss but now, at the end of summer, is filled with many still flowering plants unique to this place, and where we spotted what we think were White Footed hoverflies on a hawkweed flowerhead.

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The list is like a celebration of summer grassland: the delicate tiny flowered vervain, mayweed, red bartsia, common toadflax, common birdsfoot trefoil, wild carrot, meadow cranesbill, red clover, hop trefoil, herb robert, fat hen, white clover, agrimony, woolly thistle (in seed) rat’s tail plantain, flowering prickly sow-thistle, forget-me-not, great willow herb, teasel, ragwort, rosebay willow herb (in seed) centaury, melilots.  As you follow the path between the shrubs the tall strawlike grasses are filled with hidden crickets and grasshoppers, leaping in every direction, fat bumblebees buzzing away, tiny moths, skittering black spiders, snails, aphids, beetles, gnats and hoverflies – all the insects our local breeding Warblers and Spotted Flycatchers love to feast on.

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Along the boundary are the trees and shrubs laden with fruit, some already ripe and ready for harvesting, the long straggly branches of the blackberry brambles, heavy with black, red and green berries, rose briars flaunting scarlet hips and blood red Robin’s pincushion galls, skeins of old man’s beard and hops both in seed and flower, fat purple sloes, black bryony berries, green privet berries, pale hazel nuts, black elderberry and dogwood berries, scarlet hawthorn berries – an seemingly endless supply.

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All the fruits and harvest of the summer ready to pick, boil, store for cold winter nights or Christmas feasts – thick treacly Sloe gin to fill the hip flasks, sloe and wild apple preserve for breakfast toast, hops to tuck inside your pillowslips to aid sleep, blackberry and apple crumbles to keep out the cold, elderberry or blackberry liqueur for after supper tipple, rosehip syrups for pancakes, and hawthorn jelly for cheese.   But not from here – this is a designated Wildlife Site!  All these seeds and fruits and berries are a treasure chest for the exclusive use of the local wildlife (I never look at blackberries without remembering how foxes eat loads – evidenced by their scat) to sustain them through the dark days of winter – we can always forage elsewhere.

30th August 2019

Latest sightings around the Conduit Bridge Area 

DSCN8644.JPGSmall Tortoiseshell – c. John Hansford

DSCN8660 (2).jpgAmber Listed Stock Dove c. John Hansford

DSCN8635.jpgRed Kite – c. John Hansford

DSCN8591.jpg Painted Lady – c. John Hansford

27th August 2019

0.jpgJuvenile Spotted Flycatcher – copyright John Hansford

Brilliant news this morning from John Hansford – he saw 3 pairs of Spotted Flycatchers along the cycle path yesterday – inluding this juvenile.

His sightings also included an astonishing 60+ Common Blue butterflies as well as 1 Silver Washed Fritillary, 1 Brown Argus, 20+ Painted Lady, 1 Meadow Brown, 1 Comma, 1 Holly Blue 5+ Speckled Wood,  8+ Red Admiral and 1 Gatekeeper.  Quite a haul!

It is worth remembering that the Red-Listed Spotted Flycatcher have seen a population decline of 89% between 1967 and 2010 and numbers dropped across mainland England and Wales, south of a line between Windermere and the North York Moors, from 31% to 9% in the last twenty years.

These areas of undisturbed mixed woodland, scrub, saplings, bramble thickets and open ground thick with birds eye trefoil, centaury, ragwort, St John’s wort, wild carrot and hedge parsley, all great insect attracting plants, is such a precious habitat for warblers and other insect eating birds which are in drastic decline throughout Europe due to the crash in insect numbers.

26th August 2019

Prince of mushrooms?  Something more sinister?  Or could it just have been, as has been suggested, a common earthball, the most common species of earthball in the UK, occurring widely in woods and which has no stem but is attached to the soil by mycelial cords?  Hmmm…. ah well, back to the drawing board!

15th August 2019 / Temp: 18 C / 3pm – 4.30pm

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Is this the Prince of Mushrooms?

Well, is it Agaricus augustus, “one of the very finest of edible fungi (indeed, truly deserving of the title Prince of Mushrooms!)” nestling between the wooden sleepers of the disused railway line or is is it something more sinister?   Would you trust your ability to identify a wild mushroom before cooking up a tasty risotto?  Neither would we – at least not using our own powers of identification so we must wait for our fungi guru to return from holiday before we attempt any serious foraging; nevertheless it is a pretty handsome beast.

We were off on a Chalkhill Blue hunt and were as unsuccessful as we had been on our Otter hunt along the River Frome earlier in the week.  Climbing up onto the embankment where we have been assured there is kidney vetch growing (although we have never seen it) where we have definitely seen yellow meadow anthills and were sure we would see Chalkhill Blue butterflies, our hopes were high.  We had seen couple of males mud-puddling close by some weeks ago, so these sheltered,  south-facing and sun-warmed, grassy calcareous slopes, liberally scattered with birds foot trefoil, seemed a safe bet.

There were Painted Ladies (7) Small Tortoiseshells (5) Red Admirals (2) Common Blues (8) Small Whites (4) Gatekeepers (4) Meadow Browns (2) and 1 solitary Speckled Wood but….  sadly no Chalkhill Blues.  However it was difficult to feel despondent for long as we sat on the hot grass, watching the butterflies fluttering and dancing around the buddleia and noting with satisfaction that although we were basking in warm sunshine on our “mini downs”, the tops of the trees opposite were being thrashed about by the strong and chill north-westerly winds.  And then, to our astonishment, we spotted first one then several more tiny dusky blue-blush Small Blue butterflies, the first sightings of this diminutive butterfly for at least a couple of years.   Any earlier disappointment at the non-show of Chalkhill Blues was instantly forgotten.

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The Gatekeepers stayed among the flowering plants in front of the trees and hedges but all the other butterflies were busy investigating the flowers among the tall sraw-coloured grasses, white flowered wild carrot and upright hedge parsley, purple-blue field scabious, purple tufted vetch and the lovely yellow common toadflax.  There were large areas of rabbit-nibbled grass, scattered with bright pink centaury, egg-yolk yellow birds foot trefoil, faded pink red clover, pale yellow balls of hop trefoil and the profusely flowering four large purple buddleia bushes at the foot of the slope.  When the sun went in the Painted Ladies, Red Admirals and Small Tortoiseshells rested on the grass or one of the small boulders, wings outstretched creating vibrant small Turkish rugs against grass and stone, remaining there until the sun came out again when, solar powered wings recharged, they returned to foraging for nectar.

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There are a good number of tall, rather magnificent woolly thistles along the top of the embankment which make a striking sight with their vivid purple flower head and pincushion buds.  When the conservationist N W Moore talked about keeping common species common he could easily have been thinking of woolly thistles and field scabious as pretty well all of their flower heads were a mass of insects.  Lots of bumble bees of course on the thistle heads with hoverflies, iridescent greenbottles which had turned bronze with age, fleshflies (surprisingly) and tiny black beetles, all squashed together on one flower, seemingly totally indifferent to its neighbour.  Most of these insects are pollinators, the falling numbers of which are causing great concern Europe-wide with even the nature reserves in Germany having suffered a crash in numbers, all of which reinforces the importance of wild areas like the cycle paths which like blood vessels criss-cross the whole country, often providing the last spray free refuge for so many insects.

Both of these species are a favourite with butterflies – Silver Washed Fritillaries love thistles and field scabious are always a magnet for Small Tortoiseshell, Gatekeeper and Burnet moths, although this pair below look to be packed with pollen beetles, feasting on the pollen before wintering underground.

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Hedge bedstraw, wild basil, buttercup, small flowered willowherb, rat-tail plantain, great willowherb, white deadnettle, common valerian, wild angelica, field bindweed, St John’s wort, ragwort and prickly sowthistle were all in flower at the top of the embankment.

Blackbird, Robin, Magpie, Pheasant, Wood Pigeon, Lesser Black-backed Gulls were the only birds we saw or heard apart from lots of tits dashing around, far too fast for us to identify.  No sign of rabbits apart from a liberal scattering of droppings which we understand are sweet smelling which is just as well as they are impossible to avoid  when sitting on the grass, they were everywhere, from which we assumed the rabbits are pretty safe and well!

14th August 2019

A wonderful selection of butterfly photographs from John Hansford after a quick 20 minute visit to the area close to Conduit bridge yesterday, either side of Midday.   They are all beautiful but the photograph of the underwings of a Red Admiral butterfly is something neither of us have noticed before so it is an extra pleasure to share it with our readers.

DSCN7481 - Copy.jpgRed Admiral underwing

       DSCN7478.JPGComma

DSCN7458.JPG Common Blue

DSCN7489.JPGPainted Lady

8th August 2019 / Temp: 19.5 C / 11.5am – 12.50pm

IMG_E4799.JPGSilver-Washed Fritillary c. John Hansford

Warm sun and golden corn stubble fields greeted us as we arrived at Colliers Way.  We were so concerned on our last visit at the dearth of Silver Washed Fritillaries and Commas that we decided to concentrate on butterfly counting so we were delighted to immediately see our first Comma, sitting on a bramble leaf soaking up the sun.  Over the next hour or so we saw 2 more Comma, 6 Fritillary, 21 Small White, 2 Large White, 9 Meadow Brown, 2 Small Tortoiseshell, 2 Red Admiral, 5 Gatekeeper, 3 Speckled Wood, 5 Small Heath, 9 Common Blue and 2 Marbled White butterflies.  These aren’t huge quantities and this year’s butterfly numbers have fallen considerably compared to last year, however, at least there are a few Silver Washed Fritillaries and Commas so there is every reason to be hopeful.

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Wild carrot plants are abundant at the moment, alongside the path and all over the meadow areas, and we can’t resist the lure of hunting for the single red/pink/purple flower which is often found in the centure of the flower head.  Equally often it’s not there, sometimes on neighbouring plants one will have a purple flower and one will not.  It is belived that the single red flower acts as a beacon to prospective pollinators, but there appears to be no explanation of why if that is the case, why they don’t appear in every flower head.  In America the wild carrot is called “Queen Anne’s Lace”, the white flower suggesting lace, and the single red flower the drop of blood when Queen Anne pricked herself with a needle while making the lace.

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It is always quite magical to walk across a flat meadow thick with waving, sun-bleached grasses and scattered with white umbelifers, hedge parsley, wild carrot nests, egg yolk yellow birds foot trefoil, purple thistles, yellow starlike St John’s Wort which inevitably wakes every snoozing meadow grasshopper to leap and jump in all directions at every footfall; ever better when micro moths and butterflies, mostly small heaths and meadow browns, join in the fun by fluttering up into our faces.  It is the experience of high summer we most long for and which is one of its greatest delights.

If we were walking blindfolded or in the dark we would still know we were approaching the stretch of the path which is heavily shaded by the trees and thick undergrowth by the smell of apples.  Long before we reach the crab apple tree the tang of windfalls on the damp ground drifts on the air and is concentrated by the tunnel of trees, sending a heady hint of autumn.DSCN7430 (3).JPG

There were  a good number of bees, particularly on the ragwort and the common valerian, mostly fat and furry bumble-bees – buff-tailed, red-tailed, and a sprinkling of worker bees.  The most frequent insects, however, were the flies, both hover and the common soldier and other flies covering most of the flower heads, those busy pollinators who are not in the least deterred by grey skies.

The birds have finished breeding and are completing their moult making them more vulnerable, so they are concealing themselves in the trees making bird-song pretty much absent and the path almost silent.  However, we did hear Buzzard young calling for food to the adults circling overhead, a Magpie’s warning cry and a passing Raven’s croak as well as the squawking noise from a flock of Lesser Black-Backed and Herring Gulls in a nearby field. We saw Blue Tits, Bullfinches, Goldfinches, Common Whitethroats, a Coal Tit, a single Swallow and a Kestrel as well as the ubiquitous Wood Pigeons, Blackbirds, Crows and Pheasants.

We were watching a bloody-nosed beetle on a mission, lumbering slowly across the path when, quite by chance, we saw Andrew who stopped for a long, enjoyable chat and catch-up on his latest sightings, the most thrilling of which was a Merlin in early July.  He thought it was likely that one of the Merlins at Chew Magna lake, not a great distance away, may have been blown off course by the weather conditions at the time.  He had seen a pair of Tawny Owls last week, and seen or heard at least five Green Woodpeckers this year, a great improvement on last year when we were all worried by their scarcity.  He was however most excited by seeing the Linnets returning to Kilmington – he had mourned their loss over the past several years and hoped they would soon move down the path to the Mells Down end.

So many cyclists of every age, type and condition passed us as we stood chatting and when we were walking along, parents with children enjoying the freedom of school holidays, groups of teenagers, groups in their mid-20s, several separate groups of elderly men together and also groups of older women, possibly clubs, as well as lycra-clad racers – a busy path but only one other walker, one man and his dog.

25th July 2019 / Temp: 25.5-30.5 C / 9.45am-12.10pm

DSCN7337 (6).JPGPellucid Hoverfly fanning himself to keep cool under the trees!

Very, very hot!  We chose the woodland path so we could check the butterflies but also because the south-east breeze cuts across the tree shaded path – a blessed relief from the blistering heat of the sun baked town.  We were not entirely lucky – whole stretches of the cycle path were fully exposed to the blazing sunlight and some were protected from the cooling breeze which together made walking hard work.  We weren’t surprised to notice that despite the sheet lightning storm and torrential rain of two nights ago, the stream was bone dry.  We noticed very few bees again during the whole walk – no beetles but there were a number of hoverflies both in the air and joining the numerous flies on the flower heads.

iStock_000000434686_Small_623-d4096b5.jpgWoodmouse – copyright Stuart Blackman

We were surprised to see so many nut clusters littering the ground beneath the Hazel trees.  It seems quite the wrong time of the year for the trees to be raided but of course unlike us, squirrels and mice eat green nuts.  Examining the holes where the shells have been opened, there appeared to be signs of different species having eaten the nuts – squirrels evidently break the nuts neatly in half with their strong teeth to get to the kernel whereas woodmice attack the nut from the side and leave clear teeth marks on the inside of the nut.  Both signs appear on the shells in the cluster below.

DSCN7360 (2).JPGWoodmouse tooth marks on the right-hand hazelnut

Dormice however evidently make a neat round hole, also showing toothmarks, but so distinctive is the shape of the hole, it defines dormice in an area.  No signs amongst the hazelnut shells we found, but given the rareity of dormice, not unexpected.

We had some success with our butterfly count:  4 Comma is a pretty dismal number compared to the abundance of previous years but at least there were a few but of Silver-Washed Fritillaries there was no sign, not even one to be seen, much to our dismay.  We will be interested to see the results of the Big Butterfly count to see if numbers have crashed throughout the country or if it is only here, but these results are worrying.

DSCN9205.JPGComma – copyright John Hansford

Overall numbers were down, matching the fall in number of butterflies on the more open, flower filled section of the path.  Meadow Brown took the prize at 14, there were 10 each Peacock and Large White, 6 Red Admiral, 4 Small White, 3 Gatekeeper, 2 each of Small Heath, Small Skipper, Brimstone and Speckled Wood.

However a very exciting sighting as we were leaving the cycle path under Buckland bridge liften our spirits sky high.  The area above this bridge is the start of the new path which Frome’s Missing Links have been working on and is hoped that one day will run into the centre of Frome.  Surprisingly, the steep embankment here gives every impression of typical dowland and so, despite never seeing any, we have always hoped that Chalkhill Blue butterflies might breed there. The soil is mostly limestone and many characteristics are shared with the local downs – calcareous grassland kept short by a number of rabbits given the quantity of droppings, scattered yellow meadow ant hills, and quite a few typical downland plants.  We have never seen any but the Somerset Environmental Group found Horseshoe Vetch here, the single plant which is essential to Chalkhill Blue butterflies, so we had reason to be hopeful.Lysandra_coridon_male_(4871869664).jpg

Chalkhill Blue (male) copyright Gilles San Martin

The overnight thunderstorm and heavy rainfall had left muddy puddles that even the enormous heat had not completely dried and we suddenly caught sight of two small very pale blue butterflies fluttering and feeding on the mud.  The size but most of all the colour could only mean they were male Chalkhill Blue butterflies mud-puddling, an activity only male butterflies engage in to take up salts.  ‘Males seem to benefit more from the sodium uptake as it aids in reproductive success, with the precious nutrients often transferred to the female during mating. This extra nutrition helps ensure that the eggs survive’. At last – all things come to those who wait and it has certainly been one long wait! When the weather is somewhat cooler we must climb up the long flight of steps and venture out along the embankment and see if we can spot some Chalkhill Blues in situ, as well as, who knows, perhaps a horseshoe vetch.

It was so lovely to hear the Song Thrush, a Green Woodpecker and a Raven’s distinctive calls echoing across the quiet woodland.  We heard a pair of Jays making a good deal of noise quarreling and arguing in the trees, a Wren’s teck teck teck alarm, a mewing Buzzard overhead, a party of complaining Jackdaws and screeching Crow all made themselves heard against the near constant coo of the many Wood Pigeons.

15th July 2019 / Temp: 21 C / 2.50pm – 5.05pm

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Beautifully sunny mid-summer afternoon.  The fields of ripened treacle coloured corn are edged with wide margins where tufted vetch, scarlet poppies, knapweed, yarrow, meadow cranesbill, timothy and meadow grasses are flourishing and all along the old train embankment rose bay willow herb fights for space with self-heal, lady’s bedstraw, hedge bedstraw, knapweed, yarrow, umbellifers, and clumps of yellow rattle – full of seed – fulfilling their name.DSCN7251 (5).JPG

Every year I marvel anew at the impact made by these areas of flat verges and gently rising embankments packed with a riot of flowering plants.  It seems remarkable to me how a completely random selection of plants start to push through the earth, form leaves and buds, explode into vibrantly hued flowers, glow for a few days and then begin to fade, seed, droop and wither, shrivel and die down – over.  The plants are always in a perfect harmony of colour, variety of petal shape, difference in heights and size of stem, leaf, flower head, always pleasing to the eye.  The colours never clash, they are never discordant with the neighbouring plant, whatever the shade they are balanced, never out of kilter with each other in a way that even the most brilliant plantsman can rarely attain, although Piet Oudolf the Dutch garden designer of the High Line comes closest but without the wild disorder, the “… fine careless rapture”  which is almost impossible to grasp.

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The plants seeds fall close so forming over the time these embankments have been disused tall clumps of bold colour, rose bay willow herb, lime green hedge bedstraw, white and gold ox-eye daisies, burnt red clover and wild basil, thick creamy common valerian, magenta knapweed, blue meadow cranesbill mixed with purple-blue tufted vetch, white (and pink candy striped) bindweed and white hogweed and Queen Anne’s lace, clumps of commanding shapes – yellow ragwort and St John’s wort with spikes of yellow agrimony and birds foot trefoil stretched tall to reach the light,  drifts of misty whites, chickweed, lady’s bedstraw, small splashes of the unexpected – pink & white pea flowers, tangles of the cream star shaped black bryony and wild clematis, powder puffs of goats beard seed heads the list seems endless – one long seemingly never-ending joyful herbaceous border – a feast for the eyes and senses which no photograph or mere words can adequately capture and then – poof gone, all over far too soon, leaving just the mind pictures to carry us forward for another year.

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There is such a great profusion of one of my favourite flowers this year – field scabious, attracting all the butterflies but particularly a good number of Marbled Whites which seem to love it.   A fair number of Meadow Brown, Speckled Wood, Small Skipper and Large White butterflies range around the flowers and up into the trees but astonishingly only 3 Brimstone, 1 Silver-washed Fritillary, 1 Red Admiral and 1 Peacock amongst the flowers and grasses, but no Commas, Painted Lady, Clouded Yellow or Gatekeeper.  We can’t remember a sunny summer’s day when we have seen so few and it is difficult to find an explanation.  The greatest number on the embankment are the Small Heath and Small Skipper, their bright orange wings flashing in the bright sunlight.  However, despite these, overall this has been a drastic fall in numbers of butterflies compared to previous years.  This should be the height of the butterfly season and it is extremely concerning that other sites we visit, including woodland glades, haven’t shown any noticeable fall in numbers at all and easily double the numbers we are seeing this year along the cycle path.

A note from our diary on the same date in 2017 reads “The most striking sight was the sheer quantity and variety of butterflies. So many Silver-washed Fritillaries, Red Admirals, Peacocks, lots of Gatekeepers, Ringlets, Commas and Small whites swarming and feeding on the clumps of buddleia and banks of flowers all along the Way making the walk in the warm sun a delight.”

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We did see the occasional honeybee and a couple of hoverflies, including the above which we think is a Common Banded hoverfly.  It is the swarming season for the bees can that account for there being so few around?  Just a few weeks ago every flower head seemed to contain either a bee or a hoverfly but suddenly we are seeing very very few.  Can it be that whatever is causing the butterfly numbers for the whole season to fall so worryingly compared to previous years is also affecting the other insects?  We do grieve the loss – the explosion of butterflies along the cycle path was one of its glories to be celebrated.

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Labyrinth spiders however are everywhere – casting their silken nets across low shrubs and plants and lurking in their tunnels, protecting the egg sac at its base and waiting to pounce on the unwary.

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Lovely to see the delicate Vervain, Pale Toadflax and the tiny pink Centaury half hidden amongst the umbelifers.  Their unobtrusive pastel shades are so easily overlooked among these tall neighbours or lost among the brash purple, pink and yellow colours of other more striking flowers.

First sight of several clumps of Evening Primrose along the edge of the path where close by little tunnels made by small mammals are appearing in the thick grass on the bank.  A small collection of black animal scat on the path to the entrance to one such tunnel – hedgehog?  The correct shape and colour but impossible to be sure.

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We caught sight of a freshly formed edible fungus, the quaintly named Dryad’s saddle fungus, which we have never tried eating, although it is said to be delicious – maybe one day.  We always find the sight of them in the summer months unexpected, still believing, quite wrongly, that fungus only appears in autumn.

Still Swallows to be seen thank goodness, along with Robin, Chaffinch, Willow Warbler, Whitethroat and Chiff Chaff.  Goldfinches, Blackbirds, Wood Pigeons and Crows aplenty but no sign of any of our usual raptors – must be the result of slim pickings now that the nestlings have flown the nest.

2nd July 2019 / Temp: 20 C / 2.40pm – 4.15pm

DSCN7148 (2).jpgSimplicity – Green Oak Bench – Yumiko Aoyagi

Warm with periods of bright sunshine bringing out the Burnet moths which always seem to spend the summer perched on a scabious flowerhead and a good number of butterflies.  The first Silver-washed Fritillary of the season as well as Brimstone, Large White, Comma, Painted Lady, Speckled Wood, Ringlet, Marbled White, uncountable numbers of Meadow Brown as well as our first ever sighting of a Small Skipper.

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Surpisingly not that many bees – there were of course the usual Red, White and Buff-tailed Bumblebees and Honey bees together with the carpet of Mining bee holes, but they just weren’t in any great numbers.  Lots of flies and hoverflies (including very many Lesser Banded, Pellucid and Marmalade) and moths, Common Nettle Tap among others, around the flowers and a scattering of bejewelled Thick-legged flower beetles buried deep in the Ox-eye daisy flowers.

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Not all is trouble free in our little stretch of Eden.  The above photograph of a couple of Harlequin ladybirds recently hatched with their empty pupal cases abanded beside them highlights a problem which is increasing year on year – the ever growing number of the invasive and extremely aggressive Harlequin ladybirds.  At this time of the year every leaf or flower seems to harbour at least one but often several Harlequin larvae in every habitat – riverside, woodland and here along the cycle path.  Alongside the increased number of Harlequins is the falling numbers of native ladybirds which seemed to be around in good numbers in the spring, and have now become increasingly hard to see.  A worrying state of affairs with no obvious solution.

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However, it is the embankments, slopes and swathes of wild flowers, subtly beautiful in their simplicity which cannot fail to fill us with delight.  The sheer profusion of plants, tall and stately, small and creeping, tiny delicate vervain and pale toadflax flowers nestling amongst large stands of rose bay willow herb, bladder and red campion, nodding scabious and knapweed above brilliant yellow creeping cinquefoil, all the deep tones of summer – multiple shades and drifts of purple and magenta, cream, yellow and white on green and more green with occasional vivid splashes of bright blue and scarlet.

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Home for Nursery web spiders to build their tented nests, small field and bank voles with places to hide, slow, slow, slow worms and grass snakes, lumbering hedgehogs and lazing lizards, fat toads and tiny field mice as well as all the beetles and busy yellow ants, all have their place in these generous areas of undisturbed banks of plants, shrubs, hedges and trees.

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Willow Warblers, Yellowhammers, Chiff Chaffs, Chaffinches, Bullfinches, Goldfinches, Blue tits, Dunnocks, Whitethroats, a tiny Wren, several Blackbirds and a wheeling Buzzard all entertained us with their song as we walked or sat and admired or stopped to chat to other walkers who were also enjoying the joy which is this path and the precious areas of the English countryside in summer.

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In addition to the Common Red Soldier beetle clambering around this Common Hogweed flower head, we counted eleven other tiny beetles, flies and hoverflies crawling and feeding on the plant – what a feast!

Plants:  Pyramidal Orchid, Meadow Pea, Ox-eye daisy, Common Bird’s foot trefoil, Meadow buttercup, Common valerian, White clover, Hedge woundwort, Tufted vetch, Yarrow, Hedge bedstraw, Cut-leaved cranesbill, Nipplewort, Creeping thistle, Agrimony, Lady’s Bedstraw, Ragwort, White deadnettle, Common St John’s wort, Herb Robert, Meadow cranesbill, Wild basil, Pale Toadflax, Vervain, Rose Bay willowherb, White bryony, Sainfoin, Bladder campion, Red campion, Melilot, Common Poppy, Creeping cinquefoil, Field bindweed, Dove’s foot cranesbill, Self-heal, Prickly sow thistle, Hop trefoil, Wild Carrot, Common Hogweed.

29th June 2019 / Temp: 29 C / Full Sun

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Summer has arrived on Route 24!

An email from John Hansford  :

“I counted:

2 Red Admiral,

52 Marbled Whites this morning,

18 Large Skippers, 4 Brimstones,

7 Common Blues,

1 Painted Lady, 1 Silver Washed

Fritillary, 1 Green-Veined White,

1 Large White, 1 Small White and

a Speckled Wood.”DSCN4578.JPG

Joining in the celebration were two Red Listed birds the Song Thrush

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and the Yellowhammer

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plus that harbinger of Spring the ChiffChaff.  John added “It was great to see 5 Red Kites together”  Five! It wasn’t that long ago when we celebrated seeing just one!

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John Hansford managed a brief sortie along the cycle path yesterday and captured a wonderfully appealing shot of a Blackcap and great photograph of a Large Skipper, a butterfly we still have never spotted – maybe this summer we will be luckier.

DSCN4292.JPGLarge Skipper – John Hansford

DSCN4233.JPGMarbled White – John Hansford

DSCN4322.JPGPainted Lady – John Hansford

17th June 2019 / Temp: 16.5 C / 2.30pm-3.50pm

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A very overcast afternoon with a strong, blustery wind but thankfully dry, unlike most days these last weeks when torrential rain and periodic thunderstorms have blighted what should be the loveliest days of the year.  Lack of sun means a total absence of butterflies and the insect bonanza of a couple of weeks ago has fallen to a trickle of odd specimens.  This Black and Yellow Longhorn beetle is evidently extremely common but he is new to us and is rather a handsome fellow.  We were interested to read Paul Evans writing in the Guardian Country Diary that

Rutpela and other flower-longhorns have lives divided into separate bodies in which they inhabit two very different worlds. These are saproxylic beetles and their larvae feed on dead wood – fallen boughs, hollow trunks or rotting stumps of oak, hazel, birch, beech, willow and sometimes fir. All these trees grow in the woods surrounding the old railway line, and in the rotten darkness of secret, incredibly species-rich interior universe of what I call the Saproxylica, longhorn beetle grubs grow big and fat for three years. They pupate and emerge as adult beetles from May until August, when they fly from darkness into the sunlight and specifically to the flowers of Apiaceae, umbelliferous flowers such as these majestic hogweeds.”

He also points out that they only live as adult longhorn beetles for two weeks – such a shame when they are eye-catching and rather beautiful.  We noticed both quite a few Thick-legged Flower beetles but without the fat thighs so they must all be females who presumably don’t pump iron, a Red Soldier beetle, whose colour is always striking, there were quite a few 7 spot Ladybirds, a great fat and flashy golden yellow Hornet on the hunt.

DSCN6968 (2).JPGPellucid Hoverfly

What there were in profusion were bees, more and more bees and hoverflies – almost every flower head it seemed had its busy nectar ravenous bee, bumble bees (including Buff-tailed and Common Carder) honey bees, hoverflies, (including a good many Pellucid as above) and even a Yellow dung fly which we initially mistook for a new species of bee.

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What caused the greatest excitement was a cluster of common hogweed whose flower heads were covered in red ants.  Could these actually be the wood ants so beloved of Nightingales for which we have searched and hoped to see for so long?  Very regretfully, no.  Despite peering at the ants, poring over the greatly enlarged photographs, we had to admit that they were Common Red ants and not our longed for wood ants.  Ah well, maybe if the Nightingales do return they might be hungry enough to content themselves feeding on any Red ants the Woodpeckers leave behind.

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We met a group of Australians, newly arrived in the UK, dashing through at top speed but stopping long enough to say they had seen a Brown Hare lolloping along the path in front of them and a couple of grey squirrels.  Quite a few cyclists but no other walkers.  Very few birds either – Chiff Chaff, Robin, Blackbird, Common Whitethroat, Lesser Whitethroat, Crow, Buzzard and several Song Thrushes singing beautifully but not full on song.

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Plants:  Common Spotted Orchid, Meadow thistle, Hedge Bedstraw, Meadow Cranesbill, Bush Vetch, Meadow Pea, Ox-eye Daisy, Red Clover, White Clover, Red Campion, Common Hogweed, Herb Bennet, Herb Robert, Common Valerian, Bird’s-eye Speedwell, Forget-me-not, Ribwort Plantain, Common Chickweed, Hedge Woundwort, Hop Trefoil, Crosswort, Creeping Cinquefoil, Dog Rose, Wood spurge, Ground ivy Field Bindweed, Stinging nettle Buttercup, Goosegrass, Butter -burr, Harts Tongue, Agrimony, Prickly Sow thistle, Black Bryony, Wintercress, Wild Strawberry, Bittersweet, Bramble flowers, Elderflower, Hairy Tare, Cut-leaved Cranesbill.

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Email from John Hansford with news of his enjoyable 90 minutes hunting along Colliers Way today, coming back with First Prize – the very first sighting of a Grizzled Skipper in the area – what a coup!  And managing to get such a good, clear photograph of it for the record – brilliant.  Grizzled Skippers are scarce throughout the country and one of three threatened species of butterfly here in Somerset, so this is a really exciting find.

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His beguiling photograph of a Common Whitethroat with fat caterpillar surely earns its share of the laurels, which together with the Brimstone and Common Blue butterflies IMG_1787.jpg       IMG_1791.jpg

and the Cinnebar Moth made for a pretty satisfying Sunday afternoon’s stroll by anyone’s standards!!

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6th June 2019 / Temp: 17C / 2.30pm – 4.30pm

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Although the temperature looked reasonable, the surprisingly chill, very blustery wind took the warmth out of the afternoon air when the sun disappeared behind the clouds.  However, when the sun shone, the tangled riot of tall grasses, generously scattered with equally tall hogweed, cow parsley and ox-eye daisies, the embankments and verges between the cycle path and the boundary tree and hedge line is June at its most verdant.

Dog roses intertwined with the star-like flowers of the white bryony clamber over hedge and tree, the elderflower in full bloom scents the air and although the June lull in butterflies meant we only saw a handful of Brimstones, a couple of Common Blues and a few Speckled Woods, it is more than compensated by the insects.  In a recent survey, common hogweed was found to be in the top ten of nectar producing plants and it seemed almost every flower head contained at least one but often two or three different bee species sharing the space with wasps, daytime flying moths (including what we thought might be a Strawberry Bright and a Yellow-barred Longhorn moths) hoverflies, or other pollinators. 

Thick-legged Flower Beetles

The ox-eye daisy seemed the preferred flower for hoverflies, clusters of tiny black beetles, lots and lots of the ubiquitous thick legged flower beetle, and even female white crab spiders, one enjoying its prey, nearly twice its size, and another mating with a male spider.  We knew that the male tied the female with its silken thread before mating but we were intrigued to see that half a dozen or so petals had been bent down and secured to form a small but effective hiding place.  As this same phenomenon was evident on both flowers, they must have been constructed by the females; so effective were they that we had to lift a petal with extreme care before we could see the spiders and their mates or prey almost completely hidden in their dens.

DSCN6938 (2).JPGMale White Crab Spider mounted on a Female White Crab Spider

A Marmalade hoverfly and Red & Black froghopper were amongst the insects we were able to identify but there were so many furry flies, long legged flies, indistinguished looking brown moths and beetles which we couldn’t begin to sort out, despite flicking through books and scouring the internet.  However, named and unnamed, in view of the frightening fall in numbers of pollinating insects across the whole of rural Europe, it was good to see so many different species in such numbers, honey bees, particularly drones, appearing to be the most prolific, although there were also lots of bumble bees.

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Plants:    Yellow Rattle, knapweed, white deadnettle, scabious, creeping cinquefoil, herb robert, stinging nettle, herb bennet, bee orchid, bird’s foot trefoil, ox-eye daisy, hogweed, cow parsley, buttercup, white clover, red clover, dove’s foot trefoil, hop trefoil, daisies, sorrel, bird’s eye speedwell, bush vetch, red campion, bladder campion, field bindweed, chickweed, bramble, dog rose, forget-me-not, cut-leaved cranesbill, meadow cranesbill, dogwood, goose-grass, white bryony, black bryony, ground ivy, goats beard, winter cress, smooth sow thistle, prickly sow thistle, hairy tare, arum lily (in berry) common poppy all in flower.

Red & Black Froghopper  

It was so lovely to see a common lizard basking on the meadow anthill at the foot of the embankment again – possibly the same one we saw a few weeks ago and several white lipped snails clinging to tall grass leaves swaying in the breeze.  The Broad-bodied Chaser Dragonfly is a wonderfully colourful unusual visitor from the large tree surrounded pond in the midst of the adjoining arable farmland and the squawk of a moorhen which we heard is probably from the same place.

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Hardly any bird song but a good number of warning churrs, presumably from parent birds warning their young, although we did spot Yellowhammer, Whitethroat, Willow Warbler, Goldfinch, Chiff Chaff, Wren, Great Tit and a Blackbird who seranaded us with is beautiful song as we passed by watching a Buzzard circling and circling overhead.

                                         Marmalade Hoverfly

Lots of  lycra clad cyclists, most with heads down and pedalling at speed, a few dog walkers and a couple of older women, Nordic walking, who stopped long enough to exchange memories of childhood walks with grandmothers who taught them the name of the plants.

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23rd May 2019

Nightingale and Butterfly habitats on Colliers Way

Further to our concern about recent work along the cycle path, we have received a reply from the Sustrans officer overseeing part of the clearance; the paragraphs relating to Butterfly and Nightingale habitats are posted in full.

 “There were several components to the winter management work that took place this winter. Part was tree and hedge cutting commissioned by my colleague as part of the regular route maintenance programme, part was clearance around structures requested by our structural engineering team and delivered by the contractor, and part was work undertaken by volunteers under my direction, either the Frome’s Missing Links team or the Radstock group.

The routine  tree and hedge cutting carried out this year was more significant than previously. This was driven in part by a desire to maintain a deeper verge that can be left longer between cuts, cutting wider and therefore less often. There are a number of benefits to this including gaining space for a wider range of transitional habitats, preserving a more stable shape to the scrub edge rather than undercut walls of vegetation which are liable to collapse onto the path, and shifting the valuable scrub where it will not need to be cut each year. This involves more drastic change at the time but should lead to reduced disturbance overall.

However, this overarching principle should have been more sensitively adjusted to specific situations on the ground. While I had notified my colleague of your [Nightingale] sighting, I was not involved specifying the work, and did not deal directly with his contractor. There were a number of instances where the work undertaken was not as I would have wanted and this has led to my colleague and myself reviewing the routine management specification in more detail.

I was also unaware of the scale of the clearance that was planned around the culvert at ST 726508 [where Nightingales were sighted by local ornithologist].  As mentioned, this is led by our structural engineering team, who request clearance of trees/mature scrub near bridges, culverts or retaining walls to preserve the life of the structure and prevent collapse. This is part of our legal responsibility for the conveyance of water across our land, as well as being required to keep the path in good condition. From the size of the trees/scrub removed I would imagine the culvert hadn’t been cleared in a while, which might have been because we weren’t aware it was there, and might be because there is now a much stronger push on keeping a 2m area clear wherever possible. Had I picked up that there was a culvert at the location I would have been able to warn that clearance might be required, so I apologise for this failure of mine.

Lastly, regarding the work by the volunteers, we had discussed and agreed to restore the orchard area planted at ST 728507, pushing back the scrub encroachment to reclaim a previously more open character and maintain a wider grassland area. However, the contractor visited ahead of one of the planned workdays, and unbeknownst to me cleared much of the scrub we had planned on tackling, including removing one of the buddleias. The FML volunteer manager called me when he arrived on site and asked if they could change their plan and push further back to make a space to create a dead hedge with the arisings. Without sight of the situation I agreed, but when I joined the group at the next workday, I realised that a) the contractor had cleared and much larger area than I had understood and b) FML had cleared paths into a blackthorn thicket I did not want to open up further. We altered the plan for the workday and focused on pruning the apple trees and removing bramble shoots from the grass. The overzealous clearing by the group was my failure to recall the details of the site location and keep abreast of where and what was proposed.  

 I hope this goes some way to explain the decision-making processes that were involved in this winter’s work.  By way of learning from this my colleague and I are revising the schedule of information that goes out to our contractors and resolving to ensure our works are better integrated and coordinated. This will be helped by a new GIS mapping system that should ensure all relevant information is recorded in one place in a manner that can be more easily shared.”

8th May 2019 / Temp: 8-10.5 C / 2.15pm-3.30pm – Heavy rain storms with a brief sunny intervalDSCN6620 (2).JPG

Fortune favours the brave!  We arrived in a drenching rain storm which fortunately stopped soon enough for us to manage an all too brief walk, but when we caught sight of the looming slate coloured clouds, we quickly headed back and managed to make the car just before the next storm hit.

Hardly May weather but although there were no basking lizards or warm sun to lure us to laze on the grass, the rain didn’t seem to deter the birds, many of whom were singing their hearts out at top volume.  Fewer than last week but Robins, Chiff Chaffs, Chaffinches, Blue Tits, Great Tits, Wrens, both Common and Lesser Whitethroats tried to match the sublime notes of the Blackbirds and the beautiful rich clear song of the Song Thrushes serenading or more likely challenging each other from their fiercely defended territory despite the rain.  Neither the Pied Wagtail streaking past nor the Swallows swooping over our heads made a sound but that may have been because they were too busy listening to the Raven gliding over the trees continuously croaking.

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The may blossom was in full extravagant flower on the hawthorns and although the flowers along the verges and banks looked a bit rain battered, they still made such cheerful splashes of colour – bright sunshine yellow cowslips, buttercups and hop trefoil, every shade of blue from the almost purple Spanish bluebells, bugle, ground ivy, birds eye speedwell to the pale blue forget-me-not, the zinging pink red campion, dove’s foot cranesbill, herb robert, red dead nettle to the gentler hues of wood spurge, green and white cow parsley, may and dogwood glowing white in the gloom.  May is such a beautiful month – every leaf and flower so fresh and newly opened – what joy!

30th April 2019 / Temp: 16.5 C / Cloudy, Sunny periods

DSCN6583 (5).JPGCommon Lizard disturbed while basking on meadow-ant hill

Two common lizards basking on two meadow-ant hills on the embankment, the second with a two-spot ladybird as a companion!  A St Mark’s fly hovering around the newly opened Hawthorn flowers, legs trailing.  Red tailed bumble bee, several Black honey bees, many unidentified bees, a single Wasp.

It was very quiet and peaceful.  While walking home we sat down on the grassy bank surrounded by cowslips and listened to two Song Thrushes challenging each other across the valley, the one in a tree beside the cycle path leading, and the other down by the trees edging the pond answering; Blackbirds and Robins joined in, Chiff Chaffs and finally a Skylark, high, high up in the sky above us twittering his non-stop song and above the trees two Ravens croaked to each other as a Buzzard mewed above them.   All the birds of Somersetshire……

Birds:  Chiff Chaff, Blackbird, Robin, Song Thrush, Chaffinch, Common Whitethroat, Willow Warbler, Wren, Yellowhammer, Skylark, Magpie, Goldfinch, Great Tit, Long-tailed Tit, Crow, Raven, Buzzard, Jackdaw, Woodpigeon, Pheasant.  [No Nightingales.]

Butterflies:  Brimstone, Orange Tip, Peacock, Speckled Wood, Holly Blue.

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Plants:  Bush vetch, Meadow vetchling, Common vetch, ground ivy, bird’s eye speedwell, field speedwell, hop trefoil, common birds foot trefoil, cowslip, white deadnettle, red deadnettle, meadow buttercup, creeping buttercup, cow parsley, red campion, common horsetail, dandelion, dogs mercury, garlic mustard, dove’s foot cranesbill, primrose, cowslip, herb robert, forget-me-not, groundsel, wood spurge.  Apple trees, Hawthorns, Cherry trees, Norway Maple and Dogwood all in flower.

April 2019

An update from our local Ornithologist:  Please understand that I cannot publicly share locations for Nightingales – if the sites are discovered the habitats may be destroyed.

29th April 2019

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Despite three or four reminders, our local Ornithologist has yet to receive a satisfactory response, explanation or apology from Sustrans regarding his complaint about the destruction of Red Listed bird habitats along Colliers Way.  If a response is forthcoming, we will of course post it.

Meanwhile, here is a link to Let Nature Sing –  RSPB recording

Adrian Thomas, the RSPB’s birdsong expert, who recorded each of the birds on the track between 2016 and January this year, says we have lost our connection to nature. “Go back maybe 100 years and people would have recognised almost all of these birds,” he says. “They would have been in tune with the landscape and they would have read all the changes in the seasons. I’d love to get to the point where we recognised those things again.”

Thomas began recording birdsong as a young boy on the small Worcestershire nature reserve cared for by his dad. “There were nightingales there, so we would go out at night to hear them, along with scores of people from across the county who would travel to listen to them,” he says. “The problem now is that nightingales have had a 90% decline in the UK over the past 50 years, so finding them is very hard.

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/shortcuts/2019/apr/26/siren-song-can-a-charity-single-save-britains-birds-from-extinction.

20th April 2019nightingale habitat.jpg

This is where ……. (a fellow ornithologist) and I saw a Nightingale last summer.  Thank you Sustrans.”

Further observations and accompanying photographs from local Ornithologist; the photograph above refers to the area on Colliers Way where Sustrans, their contractor and Frome’s Missing Link agreed in 2018 not to carry out any work [see entry 18.3.2019 below for full details].

Lesser Whitethroats bred here.jpg“Lesser Whitethroats bred here.  None of this prime habitat needed anything doing other than left alone.”

Garden Warblers bred.jpg“This is where Garden Warblers bred last year.”

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c. John Hansford

John Hansford’s latest sightings on Colliers Way : 11 Common whitethroats, 4 Willow Warblers, Tawny Owl heard, 3 Song Thrushes, 8 Buzzards , 4 Goldcrests inc this one.

10th-12th April 2019

Below is the letter a local ornithologist has received from Sustrans in reply to his complaint about the damage caused, predominently to the bird and butterfly habitats along the Great Elm to Mells Station stretch of Colliers Way and his reply :

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Sustrans:       Apologies for not getting back to you sooner, and I am sorry for the distress caused by the work at Mells Orchard.  There was a range of work carried out in this area for a range of reasons but I recognise you feel we have not got the balance right on this occasion and I would welcome the opportunity to discuss this further with you. 

 If you are willing would like to meet with you and any others on site to discuss this and have input to our management plan.  I would be able to meet on Friday at 3pm or alternatively on Weds 24th May. 

Ornithologist:       Thank you for your mail.  Distress about what has been going on at Mells Down is an understatement.  The reply on Twitter from whoever runs the Sustrans Twitter Account [see below] was also unacceptable. Packed with Vague nonsense.  

Firstly, can you please confirm that no further working parties will take place along this stretch from the Pipeworks through to Great Elm/Buckland Dinham until further notice. 

This is really important. Habitat that has taken decades to mature has been destroyed without any thought/logic/consideration and at great damage to Nature. Here is an example. No encroachment on to the cycle path. In fact no reason whatsoever to cut this back.

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Nowhere now that Blackcaps, Garden Warblers, Common Whitethroats etc can nest. Over a dozen Butterfly species could be found here as well as numerous Moths.  All along the cycle path there are examples of this type of thing. Even where the Lizard Colony is/was so who knows what effect that will have on them? 

I cannot meet Mon-Friday due to Work.  24th May I will be on the [……………….]

The trees at Mells are not an Orchard but just a small number of Apple Trees.  I am shocked that you feel this area needs a “Management plan”. It needs to be left as Nature intended.  Unless “Management Plan” is a term used to disguise the complete lack of awareness of the damage that has been done so far. Please stop now before you are responsible for any further habitat destruction.

An answer needs to be provided as to why after promises not to do anything on the Nightingale Area this was actually an untruth and irreparable damage has now been done.

9th April 2019marsh7.jpgMarsh Tits  Steen Drozd Lund birds4u.mzzhost.com

A noted local ornithologist has become aware of the devastation inflicted by the recent work on the trees and undergrowth along Colliers Way and has written to Sustrans as follows:

“Just to let you know I am contacting the RSPB and other organisations to put a stop to the Vandalism that you are overseeing on Mells Down. 

“Fun Days Out” it says on the Wesbite [Fromes Missing Links].  Where is the fun in destroying vital bird habitat for Common Whitethroats, Lesser Whitethroats, Garden Warblers, Willow Warblers, Marsh Tits, Yellowhammers, Nightingales, Linnets, Bullfinches etc etc

I could not believe my eyes when I visited Mells Down cycle Path on Sunday.  Heartbreaking.  Who on Earth has authorised the mass destruction of probably the finest Butterfly/Bird Ecosystem across Somerset? 

That’s what you have done and are doing.  Its so shameful beyond description.  Many thanks”

We understand that Sustrans thanked the ornithologist for drawing their attention to this issue and that they are looking into it.  We will post their explanation in due course.

Sustrans has written again on the 10th April 2019 with the result of their inquiry as follows :  “Thank you for your patience. The orchard restoration work at Mells involved pushing back encroaching bramble and scrub to retain and restore the grassland habitat here. Orchard is now back to its original state after years of under management. The meadow area will be left to grow long over the summer to provide wildflower habitat.”

20th March 2019

– Vernal Equinox –

18th March 2019

Common Nightingale Edmund Fellowes BTO.jpgCommon Nightingale Edmund Fellowes / BTO

What we must accept is that Colliers Way is a Cycle Path.  It is not the haven for wildlife it was in the past.  It is not a nature reserve.  It is not being maitained as a wildlife corridor through the lifeless sprayed fields and green deserts of present farming practice.  It is a Cycle Path.  Managed for the benefit of cyclists.

Once we can accept this fact, it is possible for us to bear what we have witnessed today.  The chain saw attack on the blackthorn/bramble/hawthorn thicket from where we have been fortunate enough in past seasons to listen to the Nightingales’ song throughout the breeding season.

Despite appealing to and receiving categorical assurances by email from Frome’s Missing Link, Planning & Conservation and Sustrans on 31 July 2018 that this stretch of woodland scrub would be left intact and no work would be carried out, and despite providing detailed descriptions of the Nightingales’ nesting sites with precise map references so that there could be no mistake or confusion, this vulnerable habitat has nevertheless been attacked by chain saw and flail with possibly devastating results.

Nightingales are shy birds which are rarely seen and have very precise needs, the first being dense thickets in which to breed.  Isabella Tree in her 2018 book “Wilding: The Return of Nature to a British Farm” relates how it took twenty years to create a thorn thicket dense enough to attract Nightingales to nest there, and how delighted she was when they eventually succeeded.  The thorn thickets which are homes to our Nightingales along this stretch of Colliers Way have developed naturally over the space of fifty years.

Nightingale numbers in the United Kingdom have suffered a 90 per cent decline in the past 50 year and a BTO report in 2018 declared that the bird is facing extinction, due in the main, to Nightingale habitats having been cleared away, thickets tided up or grubbed out so that their ant and beetle feeding ground beneath the impenetrable thorns become prey to muntjac and roe deer. Noting that the number of Nightingale numbers have crashed and are now in the region of only 6,000 male singing birds, Chris Hewson of the BTO said: ‘Understanding how many Nightingales we have left is vitally important if we are to save the species here in the UK, as it enables us to assess which sites are nationally important. The relevant bodies can then look into protecting those sites that exceed critical thresholds of importance, hopefully ensuring that future generations can hear the beautiful song of the Nightingale for themselves.’

Such is the concern for their preservation, they are on the BTO Red List and protected by  The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 Read more at https://www.rspb.org.uk/birds-and-wildlife/wildlife-guides/bird-a-z/nightingale/#p2w8plm4R8BUtjrK.99.

The Colliers Way Nightingales have been a very precious summer delight which may not be enjoyed again.  However, we have to accept that cyclists, for whose benefit the path is maintained, neither see nor hear nor care.

18th March 2019 / 9.30am – 10.30am / Temp : 8.5 C

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A chilly morning with grey, scudding, threatening clouds and a strong, cold, north-easterly wind with intermittent rain showers. Not the most inviting of days to walk the path unless of course one has been confined to the house for five long wearying weeks with winter flu. So despite the inclement weather, we stepped out with a will, pleased to see so many plants in flower: long drifts of both purple violets in large, spreading clumps along the tops and sides of the embankment, amongst the grass verges beside the path and hundreds and hundreds of individual white violet flowers scattered under the trees, lighting up the dull day with their delicate beauty. A solitary primrose, but massed beds of dogs mercury, red and white dead nettle, birds eye speedwell, and odd plants of egg yolk yellow dandelion and coltsfoot. Most of the blackthorn blossom is still in tight bud but here and there in branches well protected from the wind there were sprays of opened flowers and these, together with the yellow pollen-coated pussy willows showed spring was well on its way.

Robins, Wrens, Blue Tits, Long Tailed Tits, Blackbirds, Dunnock, Pheasants, Wood Pigeons, Rooks, Crows and Jackdaws we expected to see, even the three Buzzards were not unexpected, but to see our first Yellowhammers (wearing vivid caps of mating plumage) and then to hear the first Skylark of the year were sights and sounds to really lift our spirits. So when we saw not one but two big fat bumblebees buzzing around at top speed, we just knew spring must be here!

28th February 2018

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Silver Washed Fritillary feeding on Buddleia – c. John Hansford

We have been contacted by a couple of keen entomologists who regularly cycle this stretch of Colliers Way to photograph the rare butterflies recorded among the trees, shrubs and flowers alongside the cycle path.  Regular readers of this Blog will recall our reports during June and July each year of the sheer mass of butterflies of all the different species which is the glory of every summer along the Way.

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Brown Argus feeding on common birds foot trefoil

Our correspondents were therefore utterly devastated to see the huge numbers of trees and shrubs which have been cut down along the path, particularly around the picnic bench close to Conduit bridge and especially the brambles and buddleia which feed so many of the 25 species extant along the path.

We contacted Frome’s Missing Links who are responsible, under the direction of Sustrans, for the management of the path, and received the following statement from their spokesman:

Your concerns about the buddleia are well understood and I made these views known to Lydia Blake (Sustrans Greenway/ Conservation Officer).  She lead a Workday with volunteers at Conduit Bridge picnic bench on 21st Feb.  The object of this Workday was to restore the Orchard/bench area to grassland/wildflower meadow by removing brambles. 
 
Prior to this Workday, Sustrans contractor had been thinning trees and pushing back growth along the path to improve the grass verge.  I myself was somewhat surprised by the extent of the bramble clearance around the apple trees by the contractor but on reflection considered it to be a good step towards a wildflower meadow.  I did note that the contractor had cut down a small amount of buddleia.
 
On the Workday I discussed with [Sustrans] how we were to treat the the main large clump.  It was decided that about half the clump would be cut to about 3ft above the ground whilst the remaining plant would be left untouched.  I know from my own experience with buddleia in my garden that you can prune it back hard and this does not stop it from regrowing (say 6ft) and flowering within the year.  The life and health of the plant is actually improved by pruning.
 
I would ask you judge results at the end of the summer when I am sure that the above policy towards the buddleia will be shown to be effective.  I will copy this to [Sustrans] and I am sure [they] will give you further clarification on this matter.  I note your comments about privet and there is fair about of it along the path which we will work to preserve.”
 
If you would like to add a comment, please email us direct or contact

or feedback via email to web@sustrans.org.uk

27th January 2019 / 1.15pm – 3pm / Temp. 5.5 C

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Another cold mid-winter afternoon, another bitter wind, so we decided to climb up the embankment to check the Frome’s Missing Links’ progress along the old railway line where we hoped the line of trees would cut off the worst of the icy northerly wind. More work has been done, more trees cut down and a number of wooden wedges have been knocked out of the sleepers and some of the huge bolts undone, although the wooden sleepers are still in place. The good news from the FML Trustees’ report is that Network Rail have finally agreed to their proposals and have given them ‘engineering clearance’ to proceed with work along this stretch of the old railway line ( beyond Buckland Bridge). They will still need to complete negotiations with a local land owner but for now Phase 2 looks set to start up again at last!  The trustees have also commissioned a second feasibility study looking at options for the whole of the missing link between Whatcombe Fields and Buckland Bridge. The results of this work should be ready in time for the AGM at 7pm, April 2nd at Frome Town Hall.  

For the first stretch walking along the sleepers where it was more exposed by the thinning of the trees the wind was bitter, but those trees remaining were alive with whole parties of tits, Long Tailed, Great, Blue and Coal Tits as well as Blackbirds, Robins and Wood Pigeons, which proved distraction enough.

Once we reached the shelter of the stand of trees at the top of the escarpment we examined the field of anthills which we think maybe the work of the Yellow Meadow Ant.  They are closely associated with the butterfly species Chalkhill Blue, which we haven’t yet seen along Colliers Way.  Impossible to tell if these are active but it is warming to think of butterflies on this icily cold day in January.  The large tussocks, about 3 or 4 times as big have almost all been demolished, possibly by badgers, but it was good to see each of the remainder had a sprinkling of fresh rabbit droppings on their tops.  Since we found a dying rabbit suffering from either myxomotosis or rabbit haemorrhagic disease virus type 2 (RHDV2) last year, they appear to have disappeared from their usual field and the nearby burrows look to have been abandoned, so we were pleased to see so many signs of rabbit, a good sized warren with a number of active burrows here, about a mile away.  There have been worrying reports from many parts of the country that RHDV2 has mutated from rabbits to hares – a very sad development as our sightings of hares are regular but pretty infrequent now.

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There is a good mixture of deciduous trees here, predominently Silver Birch, Ash, Hawthorn, Hazel and Blackthorn, a few good sized Oaks, a good number of Buddleia, as well as brambles, a stately forty-foot Lawson cypress beside the railway track, and even a garden-escape cotoneaster sheltering the chunks of sand stones from the welcome splash of warm sunlight so that they have retained their coating of ice.

Suddenly, for no apparant reason, great flocks of a hundred plus Jackdaws and Rooks took off from the trees and fields around us, rose up above the trees and passed over us calling and croaking. One flock swirling around, the second flock flew straight over and the straggling third group ambled about the sky in no hurry to go anywhere.  Too busy watching to catch a photograph of the main mass, I just managed a snap of the few stragglers playing in the air.

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We  made our way back along the path made of crushed stone ballast which made walking slow and awkward, while noticing the stream at the foot of the embankment full and fast, creating little tumbling waterfalls as it wound its way over moss covered roots between thickly ivied, dead leaved and harts tongue fern filled banks.  When we reached the picnic table we met with a couple of extremely fit looking young women who were heading via the McMillan Way and on towards Kilmersden, following the ordnance survey map one had downloaded onto her iphone.  They were interested in Colliers Way, intrigued by the boulders with their apple named plaques and the history of the railway line.

We pointed out the memorial bricks on the flight of steps at our feet and the Rectory on the horizon across the valley where Leonard Woolf had stayed and when they asked, told them that we were logging the fauna and flora of the path whilst we walked.  One of the women then told us about a favourite walk with her whole family, children, grandparents, brothers and sisters with their broods where there was a box on legs with a waterproof wood and transparent lid containing an old black book with lined pages and margins with a pencil on a string inside where visitors can leave notes with the date and what they had seen that day.  It immediately occurred to us that such a book would make a welcome addition to the bird hide which Sustrans will be setting up along the path this year.  She said they all managed to remember having seen something noteworthy and  her nephews had delighted in writing that they had seen both a pterodactyl and a tyrannosaurus rex!

They went off to complete their walk and we turned down the hill for home through clouds of midges and warm sunlight watching the tits criss-crossing the path in front of us, a tiny Wren flitting along the ditch, Chaffinches, Crows and Pheasants, yet more Jackdaws and Rooks and a final flurry of Fieldfares just before we reached the car.

21st January 2019 – 1.30pm – 3.30pm / Temp. 5.5 C

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Pale wintry hazy sunshine seeping through thin cloud cheered the fields and bare trees even though the cold wind reminded us that it was still mid winter and not a day to linger so we set off with a brisk pace, trying, unsuccessfully, to outrun the wind and the mist dampening our faces.

It was very quiet, the fields empty of life and the trees stark and looming, which made the wild sound of honking Geese drifting across the hedgerow even louder.  We searched the skies, hoping for a sight of them, but caught sight instead of a pair of Buzzards wheeling and mewing overhead.  As we walked we heard and saw several parties of Chaffinches and Tits feeding in amongst the branches, Robins, Blackbirds, Crows and Wrens and Jackdaws and Rooks galore – “The Field of Blackbirds” indeed.

Lots of Midges and lots of fungus still – the beautiful Velvet Shank growing at head height in an ash tree, Conical Brittlestems on the verge, Nettled Crust and Hazel Bracket adorning the fallen branches, and Stagshorn fungus standing proud among its carpet of moss.

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We were so pleased to meet Andrew half way along the path.  He hasn’t been too well and so was doing his usual ten-mile hike from Frome to Radstock along the Way, having walked from Dundas Aqueduct to Bath along the two path yesterday!  He thought it was all very quiet and had been for the past two or three weeks but he had arrived at the Great Elm turn off in time to see 50-60 Fieldfares feeding in the adjoining field, a Kestrel hovering on the edge of the wood, a Nuthatch and a Tree Creeper.

We were pleased also to hear that in mid-December he had seen both a Green Woodpecker at one end of the path and a Spotted Woodpecker at the other on the same day when we mentioned we hadn’t seen either all year.  A great relief to know they are still around.  But his most exciting sighting was during the strong winds and heavy rain storms in November, he had seen a Marsh Harrier flying low near the Mells turning.  He thought it must have been blown off course by the tempestuous weather probably between Blagdon lake and the Somerset Levels.  After a good chat setting the world to rights we parted ways, energised by his news of good sightings.

A scattering of plants in flower, both red and white deadnettle, a few dandelions and pussy willow catkins already showing white through their brown winter sheath.  One hazel tree was thick with pale yellow, fully grown catkins and was making a cheerful splash of colour, while within 10 yards two other hazels had catkins which were short and stubby, still winter shriven and tinged red.  No sign of primroses in bloom, when this week last January they had already been in flower for a month.  Possibly mild enough but not enough sun – some days this winter season the days have been so dark it felt like a permanent gloaming.

11th January 2019 / 2.30pm – 4pm / Temp. 8 C

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Overcast and mild enough for midges to hatch and swarm in clouds along the path, so numerous and bothersome around our heads we were glad to leave the path and climb up into the woods to escape them.  But there were birds everywhere, Blue and Great Tits, Bullfinches, Robins, Blackbirds and Pheasants, a solitary Buzzard mewing overhead, and a Jay screaming somewhere in the wood.

The wood in winter is a killing field, just about everywhere we look there is a scattering of wood pigeon feathers, a circle on the ground or caught in the thick moss along a horizontal perching branch – the remains of a well chewed pheasant wing, a skull, a pheasant’s ribcage or the discarded claws –  raptors (possibly Sparrowhawks as most of the feather piles were wood pigeon) and foxes having eaten their fill had discarded the blood stained bones for scavengers like corvids, rodents and stoats to devour and leave picked completely clean.DSCN5943.JPG

Our exploration of the wood continued by clambering carefully through thick undergrowth, between the trees, following a faint path and trying to avoid whippy branches and trailing rose briar and brambles catchinging our hair and ripping our coats.   We noted what appeared to be hare and roedeer gnawings on the bark of fallen branches where close by we caught sight of a shed antler of a young roebuck, possibly around two years old by the size of the coronet and the pearling on the shaft of the antler.

Regretfully the tines had been broken off so not as good a specimen as we have found elsewhere.  However, interestingly when we reached home and examined the broken end we could see clear lines which meant that it had been gnawed by a wood mouse or other small rodent, probably for its calcium content.  DSCN5933.JPG

DSCN5940 (2).JPGThe first tiny Scarlet Elf Cups have appeared, making vivid splashes of colour among the drab dead leaves as did a beautiful patch of bright green lichen on one tree and a huge brown dusty polypore fungus causing trunk rot on another.  Everywhere there were raptor castings, a few filled with snail shells, scattered everywhere among the trailing ivy and the creeping feather moss coated stems of dead plants creating tiny trees in between the broken sticks, leaves, snail shells and detritus of the forest floor.DSCN5945 (3).JPG

We  eventually got through to an easier path and headed back downhill noting as we did so the surprising number of fungi fruiting alongside the path.  A dozen or more glistening inkcaps with their dusting of salt like granules, a single wood blewit, a fringed mushroom and a tree sprouting a magnificent tier of turkey tail fungus climbing up its trunk.  Various reports have highlighted the extension of the fungi fruiting season this year and it is certainly unusual to see inkcaps and elf cups fruiting at the same time. DSCN5957 (2).JPG

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The tree studded hedgerow down this stretch of the path is impenetrable but we could hear the overpowering sound of the Rooks and Jackdaws close by.  When we reached the five barred gate into the field, we had a clear view of the huge flock of more than a hundred birds feeding on the grass, flying across the fields or roosting in the mature trees at the top of the hill.  The calls of Rooks and Jackdaws is always one of the most treasured sounds of winter, when the numbers are at their greatest, and their cries and squawks ring in our ears long after we have left the cycle path and headed home.  Our scramble through the woods was such an interesting and rewarding exploration on such a damp and cheerless January afternoon, and we loved every minute of it, feeling alive and invigorated by all the signs of wildlife we had seen.

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A great opportunity to learn how to lay a hedge in the North Somerset style at a hedge laying workday held by Sustrans Ecologist Lydia Blake.  Anyone is welcome to come and try their hand.

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31st December 2018

Happy New Year!

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Very exciting news from Sustrans Greener Greenways who have sent a message to say that they are hoping to erect a hide along our stretch of the Colliers Way when they have chosen a suitable spot.

Both John Hansford, a well-known ornithologist from Coleford and we are very enthusiastic supporters of the idea.  A welcome Christmas present for the cycle path and and an promising prospect for the New Year!

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– Winter Solstice : 21st December 2018 –

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Cold and dank and drear, blustery icy wind and heavy threatening dark clouds, it was not a day for lingering but one for a brisk walk to see what is around in mid-December.  Not a lot was the short answer.

The path through the woods was suddenly silent, away from the sound of the wind on the more exposed path and devoid of people, just a one solitary runner and a sprinkling of birds – the odd Blackbird and Chaffinch, a single Bullfinch, Wood Pigeons and Pheasants in abundance and one Buzzard, circling and mewing, his call plaintive and lonely as the rain started to fall.  The only sign of life was a flock of fifty or more Rooks and Jackdaws gathering around their roosting trees in the fading light.  What a wonderfully evocative sound their calls make, echoing across the sodden fields.

On such a dark winter day the discovery beside the path of three separate clumps of White Saddle fungus, glowing amongst the red and copper oak leaves was a really welcome sight.  They are such weird shapes with their wrinkled and folded cap, like a screwed up piece of parchment thrown down amongst the leaf litter, but it’s their pure white fresh ivory glow which draws the eye.  Many tree stumps were coated with chalky white Stags Horn fungus, poking through thick carpets of emerald green moss, there was a solitary 12cm high Shaggy Inkcap its black sprinkled dome looking proud, tall and stately and, half hidden in the leaf litter, there were still small clumps of Common Inkcap to be seen. Most of the branches were coated with green shield lichen and festooned with oak moss and the trees were thick with feather moss creeping up their trunks,

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Despite the recent rain, the stream which was still trickling over the stones at the top of the slope had petered out by half way down leaving the bed completely dry.  We edged and scrambled our way through the whipping saplings and clinging brambles to where the stream had formed a black pool so that we could examine a wide scattering of golden shapes which we had thought were fungus but which instead we were delighted to find a carpet of bright golden yellow crab apples, glowing in the dark water where they had fallen.  Extraordinary to think how many times we had passed this spot and never noticed the tree or the apples and as this is only the second crab apple tree which we have discovered along the path, at least a mile away from the first –  it is a great find!

As we turned back up the hill we saw the usual flocks of gulls heading for their evening roost through the gloaming of the gloomy afternoon, coming earlier due to the heavy cloud and falling rain.  Time for us also to be heading home for a cup of tea in the snug warmth of our sitting room, out of the dank chill of  a midwinter afternoon only days away from the shortest day when the sun will begin to return and brighten our lives. We had been  disappointed not to see a single Redwing or Fieldfare, but it is still winter, there’s still time and there will of course be other afternoons.

30th November 2018 / 2.30pm – 4.10pm / Temp: 8C

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When we arrived at the path, the strong wind whipping across the fields felt icy even though the sun was shining, so we turned down the path under the bridge towards the stretch of woodland either side of the path.  The tk tk tk of Fieldfares made us look up and we stood and watched as a sizeable flock streamed over our heads first across the path then back again, collecting Redwings on the way.  It is so cheering to see thrushes in such numbers during the autumn and winter, a lovely addition to the flocks of noisy Rooks and Jackdaws we usually see crossing and criss-crossing the path.  Parties of finches and tits busy themselves in amongst the branches, Pheasants squawk in an adjoining field, a Buzzard and Raven sail past and several male Bullfinches perch show off their pink chests to a nearby Blackcap.

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Apart from a handful of pale yellow leaved field maples, the rest of the trees are now quite bare so the clumps of witches broom high up in an alder tree catch the eye.  The only colour are the few remaining fungi beside the stream and on the rotting logs and the bright vivid green of the moss and ferns, like the delicate fronds of the common spleenwort clinging to the stone on the bridge or the splashes of orange of the common jelly spot fungus and even the small white spikes of the stags horn fungus make welcome interest as we walk along.

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When the Sustrans forestry team worked on thinning out the trees along this stretch in the spring, they left small hummocks of wood chippings at intervals along the disused rail.  Several had been pulled apart, possibly by badger or roe deer searching for grubs, and the scatter of remains of a Norway spruce cone on the top of one of the mounds showed a squirrel had been busy with a prize he must have carried all the way down from the small plantation of conifers at the top of the embankment.

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We walked on down the path, giving way to lots of cyclists and runners with dogs, until we reached the newly cleared area by the puzzle bench.  The Sustrans team have been very busy clearing and cutting down lots of self-seeded ash and hawthorn trees to open up this rather gloomy stretch to more light.  Some of the branches had been piled up  beside the track but many had been threaded and laid to form a new hedge.

It had been drizzling for some time and we were getting increasingly wet but just as we reached the top of the hill, the rain stopped and the cloud on the horizon lifted enough to allow a golden sunset to flood the fields.  Time to go home for tea!

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25th November 2018

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Happy Birthday Leonard Woolf

“It is the journey not the arrival which matters”

21st November 2018 / 2pm  – 3.25pm / Temp: 6-6.5 C / Blue skies, chilly

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We climbed up the steps to the ballast path which has been prepared by the Frome’s Missing Links’ team for the planned extension of the cycle way from Great Elm to Frome.  Along this section, the railway tracks have been removed and the concrete sleepers used to create a picnic bench, with wooden planks added for extra comfort.  As we stood on the path admiring the extensive views over farm fields up to the village of Buckland Dinham, blackbirds and parties of finches scattered from every direction, a couple of pheasants squawked loudly and took off down the old railway tracks, and a great flock of some 40 to 50 Redwings and Fieldfares liften from the trees and flew over our heads, like a cloud of autumn leaves in high winds.  We were so enchanted by the sight of them that instead of walking along to the stream where the clinker path meets the cycle path proper, we decided to explore the area they had all come from, the old disused railway track.

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We managed to follow the track for some distance, while Blackbirds shot across in front of us, the ubiquitous Wood Pigeons clattered in the undergrowth, Jackdaws and Crows chattered and called overhead and a Jay screeched from its perch in the hedgerow edging the field below.  Eventually it became far too overgrown to push through but fortunately people or animals had worn a narrow path away from the railway along to where the path opened up to the steep rough unimproved grassland slope of the embankment dotted with saplings.  At the foot of slope the track of the railway used for transporting stone from the nearby quarry snaked through the cutting and as we arrived just as a train was running through, the stench of  the diesel oil and clouds of blue smoke from the exhaust was for some minutes quite oppressive.

This open space, probably due to the angle and the half a dozen ant hills with their obligatory carpet of rabbit droppings on the top, reminded us of Clay Hill and other chalk downland which, bearing in mind the underlying rock is limestone, may have accounted for the similarity of appearance and type of vegetation.   The entire grassy slope was strewn with empty bleached and weather worn snail shells, gleaming white against the green; the sheer numbers may be caused by shells not decaying very fast in lime rich places and so these could have been accumulating over many years. 

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In one of the abandoned ant hills, which looked as if it had been scraped by a badger, a small mammal, possibly a field mouse or some kind of rodent appeared to have fashioned a  safe shelter which  as the tussock is at the top of the embankment and given the angle of the sun could be sure to remain dry and warm for most of the day.

We were extremely pleased to have been lured by the Redwings into exploring this space and look forward to checking it more regularly in the spring and summer to discover what plants and flowers are colonising this patch of grassland.

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A few clumps of decaying fungus, the odd flowering dead nettle and the vivid orange seed berries of the stinking iris are the only plants to catch our eye as we walked back, noting as we passed that the stream bed is bone dry again after its brief cascade of only a few weeks ago.  The promise of torrential rain and thunder storms over the weekend should soon have it full again.

As the sun dropped behind a thick grey cloud and the wind picked up, it was far too chilly to sample the comfort of the throne so thoughtfully provided by the FML volunteers, but it was so well sited before a striking view, we promised ourselves a revisit when some warmth begins to  return with the passing seasons.

8th November 2018 /  2.45pm – 4.pm / Temp: 12 CDSCN5619 (2).jpg

Bright and blustery, with a murky, dreary look to the far hedges and a icy, wintry edge to the wind so we set off at a brisk pace.  Good to feel the air, fresh and invigorating as it played havoc with our hair and filled our lungs and thrashed the top most branches of the trees as we passed.

The autumn colours are quite spectacular this year  – pale golden yellow field maple leaves, lipstick pink cherry leaves fluttering like prayer flags above scarlet wood spurge, dark purple-wine coloured bramble leaves and the deep, deep yellow of the large sycamore leaves – vivid splashes of bright colours to brighten our afternoon.

As we walked down onto the path a great flock of fifty plus Fieldfares across in front of us, a marvellous fly past to announce their new arrival on the Greener Greenways – our first sighting this autumn.

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There was a scattering of fungus, predominently Wood Blewits, their delicate colour a welcome splash amongst the dead leaves.  We climbed up the embankment and followed a deer track through the undergrowth, bending down under low hanging branches towards the newly filled stream swollen by the recent torrential rain, water hurtling down the watercourse bone dry only a few weeks ago, and spotted a large clump of Common Inkcap, but in the main dead leaves and the occasional plant still in flower was the sum of it.  There were lots of walkers and cyclists, all like us dashing out between showers in a week of Atlantic squalls flying across the heavens, and none with any tales to tell.

Great flocks of gulls, Black-headed and Herring, were flying around in the fields on both sides of the path, pausing briefly to check out the ground, before lifting and spiralling the fields yet again.  A party of Long Tailed Tits winged through the trees on either side of us, Blue Tits, Bullfinches and Robins were also busily working the branches, a couple of Blackbirds shouted their alarum calls while in the distance the ubiquitous Crows and Pheasants made sure everyone was aware of their presence.

A quiet walk down a quiet damp path past damp quiet hedgerows, trees and fields from which we headed home with tired legs and glowing faces looking forward to our afternoon tea.

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24th October 2018 / 1.30 pm – 3.20pm / Temp: 15.5 C

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A delightful afternoon spent walking though the woods searching out mushrooms and listening to birdsong.  When we arrived the farmer was on his tractor in an adjoining field drilling and sowing his winter wheat. the seed dribbling from a hopper on the back of his tractor while blue wood smoke from two bonfires drifted over the fields and the bright sunlight lit the scene.

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We checked on the common funnel, sulphur tuft, fairy champignon, fairy inkcap and shaggy inkcap where we had seen them last year and were pleased to see a good healthy crop of each despite the prolonged heat wave and a particularly dry autumn.  Searching for mushrooms in autumn reminded us of of Gunter Grass ” strolling among the mushrooms with Sophie and you and with you…. ” when he found all of them irrestistible and took them home to cook with cream sprinkled with parsley. Searching for mushrooms in autumn reminded us of of Gunter Grass ” strolling among the mushrooms with Sophie and you and with you…. ” when he found all of them irrestistible and took them home to cook with cream sprinkled with parsley.

DSCN5458.JPG We also spotted for the first time lots of common inkcap in the grass verge alongside the cycle path as well as three or four species of fungi which we unfortunately were unable to name.  Lots more research needed!DSCN5464.JPG

When photographing the common funnel mushrooms we found the substantial part of a pheasant wing and on the same bank the long tail feathers of a male pheasant.  We often find signs of predation in this area but have never been able to ascertain whether it was from birds of prey or foxes.

This bank is scattered with badger setts and is on the edge of Newbury Firs so we wonder what creatures lurk in their depths – or maybe it is merely poachers or sportsman out with a gun for game losing their prey.DSCN5466.JPG

It was along this stretch that last year we saw a large flock of Redwings and Field Fares alongside trees filled with the extraordinary noise of twittering Gold Finches – one of our favourite memories of the woodlands.

Although we din’t see any signs of Redwings, there were lots of parties of small birds including Marsh Tits, Blue Tits, Great Tits, Bullfinch, Robin and Dunnock, as well as Jay, Blackbird, Crow, Wood Pigeon, Buzzard and as we were leaving a Red Kite flying down to land first on a hedge and then in the field before lifting and flapping off to try his luck farther down over the fields and cycle path.

18th October 2018 / 2.15pm – 5pmDSCN5271.JPGAsh trees with Dilated Scalewort (liverwort) – Bioindicators of clean air

Weather Conditions:  Sunny/cloudy cold north-easterly wind / Temp. 15 C

Redwings!!!  At last.  Having searched the skies and tree tops in vain for weeks, finally as we sauntered along in the sunshine, a flurry of wings and there, a small flock of a dozen or so Redwings crossed the path in front of us!  Real autumn is announced for us by the arrival of the Redwings and Fieldfares as much as the turning of leaves and the scent of bonfires.

Redwing – John Hansford  Redwing.jpg

Although there was a decidedly cold edge to the wind and thin autumn mists clung to the distant fields and hedgerows, once we dropped down below the embankment we were totally sheltered so we were able to enjoy the warm sunshine whilst watching the trees exposed to the wind tossing and thrashing pretty wildly.

It’s such a lovely time of the year when the lethargy of late summer is well past and there is an energy and busyness in the bird population as they gather in their flocks and dash about!  We saw two quite separate large flocks of Jackdaws, uncountable parties of finches feeding in the field, Chaffinches, Bullfinches, Great Tits, Long Tailed Tits, Blue Tits twittering as they whizzed through the trees, Robins shouting, Magpies and Blackbirds warning, as well as a flock of Starlings – a first sighting of those once most common birds now appearing in the trees abongside the cycle path.  Pheasants aplenty, a small clutch of Red Legged Partridge and a couple of Buzzards down on the groud, hungrily eyeing the game birds!

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Good crops of fungi on the grass verges and under the trees, wood blewits, yellow fieldcaps, conical brittlestems, fairy ring champignons and two small delicate mushrooms which we think are hare’s foot inkcap.  The flowering ivy coated trees and shrubs are thick with feeding wasps and dozens of bees are exploring the leaves on the upper branches, and there are already catkins an inch long on the hazel trees and new buds on the willows.

DSCN5339.JPGWe suddenly saw two roe deer leaping across the adjoining field towars us, looking over their shoulders.  We moved to the hedge to look for what had spooked them when the first deer caught of us  and changed direction, the other one kept coming, leapt the hedge like a gazelle and stood stock still staring, posing beautifully on the cycle path only yards away.  The most perfect photo-op if my camera hadn’t chosen this most annoying moment to jam and freeze.  By the time it cleared, the deer had sprung away, and soon lost to sight in the woods.

We sat on the puzzle bench, soaking up the sun, and assuaged our disappointment at lost opportunities by watching two Red Admiral butterflies sun bathing on the trunk of an apple tree.

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Their colours were so bright and vivid in the sparkling sunshine as they rested and preened before they fluttered down close to a pair of bright yellow Hornets feeding on a half eaten windfall.  Although they were close by, they made no attempt to join the hornets but waited patiently until the Hornets flew off to examine another rotting apple before they took their place.  The sun was hot, extraordinarily so for late October, and what could be more pleasant on a hot afternoon than watching Hornets and Red Admirals feeding in the quietude.

3rd October 2018 / 1.30pm – 3.45pm

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Weather Conditions:  Strong wind, cloudy bright, clearing to full sun and endless blue skies; hot in sheltered spots.  Temp: 17.5 C – 19.5 C

Autumn is here as is made clear by the turning leaves, the fruit laden apple trees, the juicy blackberries and purple sloes, the scarlet hips and the blood red haws.  If it has to come, let it be like this – warm enough to draw out the scent of hot grasses and tangled undergrowth, warm enough to encourage a scatter of flowers to bloom, filling the air with bees and wasps, 7 spot ladybirds, a few butterflies and Robins singing lustily  and let the the sunshine fall hot on our faces and remind us of the summer.

The wild cherry trees are a blaze of colour its russet red leaves challenging the soft golden bronze leaves of the field maples and wych elms, and the near purple leaves of the dogwoods through which drape necklaces of the bright red berries of black bryony through the blankets of pale golden green clematis leaves with their powder puff seeds heads which coat so many of the hedges and trees.

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The path is very quiet, the surrounding ploughed fields empty of any signs of life, even birds, so it is good to still see a handful of Large White butterflies, a Peacock, Small Tortoiseshell and Speckled Wood among the trees and banks but what lifted our spirits was catching sight of a single bright colourful Common Blue, its wings reflecting the cloudless azure sky, visiting the sprinkling of flowers along the Warbler Walk.  This broad thicket of mixed shrubs and deciduous trees fronted by an open grassy area, moss strewn and birds eye trefoil filled which is believed to be an extremely important habitat as it is acknowledged to be the best area in the whole of Somerset for warblers.

Buzzards, a solitary Raven, Pheasants, Crows, Rooks, Wood Pigeons, Robins, a calling Jay, a Blackbird, Chaffinches, Bullfinches and a party of a dozen or so Blue Tits working their way along the bushes and trees and both Herring Gulls and Lesser Black Backed Gulls “going home” were the birds we caught sight of today amongst many others unidentified flying at speed or chattering noisily whilst deeply hidden in amongst the hedges and tree tops as we pass.

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The crab apple tree is still laden with fruit, despite the carpet of windfalls on the ground beneath. Although this gives every appearance of being a wild crab, with its small, green apples, lichen encrusted branches and gnarled and twisted limbs, these trees are notorious for being cross pollinated and could equally be the result of an apple core being thrown from a carriage of a passing train sixty odd years ago.

A few pairs and single cyclists, a couple of walkers with dogs.

 23rd September 2018

Autumn Equinox –

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Weather Conditions:  Sunny with some cloud, strong south-south westerly breeze, hot in the shelter of the trees / Temp: 20.5 C

The day felt unseasonably warm and the promised rain held off but the wind was so strong and blustery, we chose the woodland walk.  The find of the day was discovering six separate plants of Meadow Saffron (locally named naked boys, pop ups and go to sleep at noon!) in two different locations which we had never noticed before.

It’s delightful to catch sight of these exquisite flowers at a time of the year when most plants are dying off, with their delicate white stems so fragile they have difficulty supporting the beautiful crocus-like flower head which glow in the shade of the trees.  Extraordinary to look at this lovely flower and remember that every part of it is highly poisonous.

The fungus season is upon us, and sure enough we came across a scattering of Shaggy Inkcap fungus alongside the path.

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It always amazes me how site specific so many plants and fungi are, in this case a fair number in this place but none at all on the entire stretch of woodland.  Again, there was one solitary Beefsteak fungus growing inside a hole in a tree, and a spread of Poplar Fieldcap in the grass near the apple trees but nowhere else.

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There are of course many exceptions, for example bracket fungus, mostly Turkey-tail, is growing on lot of trees in the wood.

A quiet time of the year, a few butterflies in evidence, mostly Speckled Woods and the ubiquitous Large White but also a few Meadow Browns, a few fat bumblebees and crane flies.  The stream bed is desert dry, just bleached stones, rushing water a distant memory and when we see the fresh diggings around lots of the badger setts, we do wonder how they are managing in their search for water.  Being up on the top of the hill must be a bit of a problem and they must have to go much farther to quench their thirst.

The birds for the most part are silent, Bullfinches, Blue Tits, a Jay and a Buzzard make their presence known and the welcome sound of Rooks and Jackdaws, nowhere near the winter murmurations, but still, a promise of that most delightful and evocative sound of winter not so far off.

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The blackthorns laden with purple sloes and the heavily fruited brambles and windfalls remind us that although we have enough sloes for our Christmas sloe gin and have made several apple and blackberry pies, it might be a good idea to pick a few more blackberries to use up the windfalls so that we might feast on a few pies over the Christmas holiday. 

The ending of summer is also the beginning of the harvest season, with fresh fruits of the hedgerows, the first milky nuts and delicious wild fungi to pick and enjoy.  We forage over the widest possible spread of countryside so we take little and leave the major part of the autumn food for the wildlife, remembering that it won’t be long before the Redwings and Field Fares arrive and even foxes like blackberries!

The cycle path was busier with cyclists than we had seen for some time, lots of lycra clad, head down, seriously racing men in training, but also family groups, often accompanied by dogs, the children in high spirits shrieking as they hurtled downhill, groaning as the laboured back up.  Everyone seemed to be in a good mood, enjoying the sunshine, glad of a traffic free space to cycle in.  We wondered though what had become of bicycle bells – of the 30 odd cyclists who passed us, not once were we alerted to their approach .  This is difficult when we are standing in the path looking through binoculars or peering at fungus, we would have welcomed a ringing bell to change our focus.  Several runners, one or two other walkers.

9th September 2018DSCN9151.JPGHornets – John Hansford

Wonderful photographs from John – the Hornets advancing from their nest is particularly striking.  He found the Hornet’s nest in the disused railway carriage which he says was an exhilarating spectacle (not quite the phrase I would have used when confronted with a nest of Hornets!)  As the queen and drones emerge in September/October they have become very noticeable just recently but we have never seen a nest and this is the first time we have heard news of one along Colliers Way.

John reports seeing FIVE Red Kites (surely multiplying in this area) of which two showed very well, quartering the field in front of where he and his family were standing.

DSCN9061.JPGComma Butterfly with Closed Wings – John Hansford

His Butterfly sightings included a  Small Tortoiseshell, 2 Common Blues and a Comma.  The superb shot of the Comma showed perfectly its “dead leaf” camouflage.

7th September 2018 / 3pm – 5.10pmDSCN5053.JPG

Weather Conditions:   Sunny, blue skies, strong fresh breeze / Temperature 18 C

The wind was surprisingly strong and blustery, susurrating through the branches of the oak, ash and sycamore trees, still heavy with summer leaf, but it was good to feel the fresher air after the heat of the summer.  The Hawthorns, thick with beautifully bright scarlet berries, and the glowing Rosehips catch the eye, which together with the blackberries which are looking  fat and juicy and inviting, should provide a good feast to await this year’s winter visitors.

DSCN9111.JPGGood to see so many of the summer flowers still in bloom, sparse but reminding us that summer isn’t quite over – clumps of brilliant yellow birds foot trefoil to interest the male and female Common Blue butterfly, pale toadflax, meadow cranesbill, vervain, common st john’s wort and buddleia, to feed the numerous Large Whites,dscn5071.jpg several Small Coppers and single Painted Lady.  Speckled Wood butterflies seem everywhere among the trees.

It was very quiet along the path, a party of Great Tits, Blue Tits and Longtailed Tits flitting silently through the trees and the only birdsong a single Chiff Chaff and a Robin, the loud chatter of flocks of Jackdaws and Rooks feeding on the newly turned ground, the mewing of a circling buzzard and the deep croak of a Raven.

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The warmth of the sun in sheltered spots felt like summer, the wind had a definite autumn chill and the vegetation, birds and butterflies seemed a hint, and echo or perhaps a reminder of both seasons together.  Whatever the season, our pleasure and enjoyment was the same, delight and contentment at the peace and beauty of our surroundings and deep gratitude of the hard work that so many people give to make it possible.

7th August 2018 / 2.10pm – 4.30pmDSCN4595.JPG

Weather Conditions:   Hot sun, fresh southerly breeze / Temperature: 24.5 C

Very busy with cyclists, walkers and families as it is the school holidays with the children enviably energetic, lively and cheerful despite the burning sun.  The same could not be said of the birds which were noticeably silent and mostly absent.  Apart from several Buzzards and a Raven circling hopefully, squawking pheasants, busy Blackbirds and the ubiquitous Wood Pigeons, the rest were keeping in the shade.

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Fortunately the butterflies were out, if not in force, at least numerous enough to liven up the afternoon.  The Large Whites at 21 took the top prize, followed closely surprisingly enough by the Small Blues which we have barely seen this year at 15 – their numbers and new locations may have been due to the spread of lots of flowering Common Birds Foot Trefoil along the edges of the path.  None of the other species reached double figures, only 5 Meadow Browns, 6 Speckled Woods, 3 Green Veined Whites, Silver Washed Fritillaries and Red Admirals, 3 Common Blues, 2 Gatekeepers, a single Small Heath, and a single female Brimstone flying up among the branches of the trees and down amongst the flowers and hot grasses under which the grasshoppers and crickets are munching away at any green fodder they can find.

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It was good to see so many flowers in bloom despite the heat – masses of purple Buddleia, common valerian, great willow-herb, scabious, knapweed, many fat thistle flowers, each with at least one feeding bee and great swathes of the small cream flowers of the wild clematis clothing the shrubs and trees.

The delicate fronds of the slightly more unusual male flowers of the hops were just visible, scrambling and climbing up through the leaves of the Wych Elm

and even a blue globe thistle which must have escaped from a garden makes a welcome offering to a passing bee.

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However, autumn it knocking on the door even in early August, the elder berries glistening deep blood-red, the sloes already purple, the apples fat and rosy and the hawthorns displaying every shade from green through pale gold to orange and finally deep scarlet, not dissimilar to our complexions by the end of the afternoon!

John Hansford managed to capture this superb shot of a beautiful, healthy, glossy-haired stoat in full flight – wonderfully full of speed and movement.

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27th July 201875d826e9b8e608db4cd6d2ae1c032bbe.jpgBlood Moon

25th July 2018 / 10.20am – 11.45am

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Weather Conditions:  Thin, wispy, milky cloud cover, pleasant breeze, cleared to full sun / Temperature: 21.5 C – 22 C

Very quiet and still under the trees, very little birdsong beyond the mew of the Buzzards, the croak of the Raven and the repeated sharp metallic note of the nuthatches’ alarm calls and surprisingly few butterflies at the beginning of our walk despite Buddleia, common valerian, great willow-herb and most of the thistles being in full flower.

We spotted a Shaded Broad-bar moth in the shrubs beyond the grass filled bridge, a good site for moths, and a Southern Hawker dragonfly on the path above the large pool beloved of the Nightingales but very little of note.

As we walked back the sun came out and the day warmed up and suddenly there were butterflies everywhere, 8 Large Whites, 16 Meadow Browns, 3 Green Veined Whites, 1 Peacock, 1 Brimstone, 11 Silver Washed Fritillaries, 1 Comma and 10 Gatekeepers.  It is always good to see the Fritillaries, they are so delightful both in their patterns, shape and colouring and also their fast flight – a wonderfully pleasing sign of high summer.

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As we neared the end of our walk we came across the scattered feathers of a recent wood-pigeon kill which wasn’t there when we passed an hour or so ago.  We recalled that Andrew had told us that there was a Sparrowhawk nest close by so hopefully a hungry chick had a good feed!

20th July 2018 / 2.30pm – 3.45pm

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Weather Conditions:   Cloudy, sunny periods, hot dry wind / Temperature: 26.5 C

We were alerted by John Hansford to an arson attack on two of the farmer’s fields over the weekend – the most damage to the 14 acre wheat field adjoining the path, most of which was destroyed.  When we eventually managed to get to the cycle path to examine the damage, even though it was now nearly a week later, a heavy smell of burnt wood smoke still hung in the air around what appeared to have been the seat of the fire.  The remains of the charred and burnt posts at the foot of the steep bank and three good-sized Wych Elms, a couple of Hawthorns, and the cinders and ash were all that remained of the hedge and undergrowth and were evidence enough of the severity of the fire.

John had a long conversation with the farmer who owned the fields who said that when the five fire engines had arrived, the firemen fought the blaze and managed to prevent the fire spreading into the other fields.  John thought that there was no doubt that young Yellow-hammers and Whitethroats will have perished as well as many insects.

DSCN9216.JPGYoung Goldfinch – John Hansford

Wych Elms are our only native elm trees and many birds eat their seeds; lots of birds also feed on the Hawthorn berries, particularly the Field Fares and Redwings who arrive in numbers in late autumn, early winter every year.  This wanton destruction of wildlife and valuable crops is mindless vandalism at its most deplorable which without the help of the fire brigade, could have been so much worse.  John said he never thought such a thing could happen so close to home.

DSCN9205.JPG  Silver Washed Fritillary – John Hansford

On a more positive note, it is the first day of the Butterfly Count and during the course of our walk we counted 1 Brimstone, 3 Speckled Wood, 3 Ringlet, 5 Gatekeeper, 6 Meadow Brown, 9 Silver Washed Fritillary, 9 Green Veined White and 18 Large White butterflies!

DSCN9072.JPGGatekeeper – John Hansford

The Rose Bay willow-herb flowers all along the top of the embankment and the Spear and Woolly thistle heads were thick with swarms of Red and Buff Tailed Bumblebees sharing the pollen with dozens of Honey bees.  The hazel nuts are already fattening alongside the blackberries, some of which were ripe, black and rather sour and the seed head of the Lords and Ladies were already turning orange.  At the height of one season nature sends a message from the season yet to arrive.

As we left the cycle path and began driving towards home, we noticed the charred remains of two other small fires – one where a wooden  gate and posts had been burnt, another close to a hedge.  A sickening outbreak of arson in the area, which may have been why we saw a young roe deer crossing the road in front of the car and disappear into the hedge of a field well away from the burnt fields.

10th July 2018 / 2.10pm – 4.30pmDSCN4369.JPG

Weather Conditions: Mixed sun and cloud,  light breeze / Temperature: 24.5 C / 75 F

Yet another hot day but cooler than the past fortnight during which the daytime temperature has rarely dropped below 28 C already climbing towards record temperatures for June/July.

The verges are filled with dried, straw coloured grasses, the golden rod plants are drooping and the trees are already displaying brown dying leaves which illustrate more than anything the arid conditions of the past weeks.  Although the clumps of the delicate Vervain look healthy enough, the moss beds which only a matter of weeks ago it seemed were completely sodden and inches deep in rain water as we squelched through were now brown and bone dry and sounded more like dead autumn leaves as we crunched along.  The thick mass of Bird’s Foot Trefoil which carpets this area and feed the swarms of Small and Common Blue butterflies, so many it’s impossible to count, is a distant memory for which the few Large White butterflies cannot possibly compensate.

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Even though the bramble flowers which always seem to attract the most bees and butterflies are almost over, thankfully the thistle season has arrived with Spear, Woolly and Creeping thistles opening their petals and revealing their pollen.  Buddleia, Scabious, Knapweed, as well as Meadow Pea and Birds Foot Trefoil also throw out enticements and all were successful in drawing countless other species of butterflies and bees.  All along the path there were very good numbers of Ringlets, Marbled Whites, Gatekeepers, Peacocks, a single Brimstone, Small Coppers, Commas, Meadow Browns, Small Heaths, overwhelming numbers of Green Veined and Large Whites and even a handful of Silver Washed Fritillaries – our first sightings this year.

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One other noticeable phenomenon was the sheer number of funnel webs spun by Labyrinth spiders.  It seemed every clump of bleached grass, every stretch of hedgerow had its elaborate concoction, filled with dead flies, moths, butterflies to feed the baby spiders when they hatched.

The number of birds seemed at first to be few but as the afternoon moved on more and more began to appear.  We had heard a Yellow Hammer, Bullfinches and Chaffinches competing with the sound of farm vehicles in a distant field busy harvesting and then saw first Coal Tits and Blue Tits darting amongst the branches followed by Whitethroats, a Willow Warbler, Blackbirds, Chiff Chaffs, a Buzzard circling overhead, a pair of Swallows and of course lots and lots of Wood Pigeons.  These are anxious times for local farmers who fear that their wheat harvest might be down by as much as 30-40% due to this long dry spell and some livestock farmers are already having to feed their cattle on winter silage, the grass having already been eaten and no more growing in the exhausted pastures.

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The path was very quiet, only a few cyclists and one other pair of walkers, apart from which we had the path to ourselves, which we shared only with Red Tailed and Buff Tailed Bumble bees, Honey bees, a single Hawker dragonfly and a profusion of butterflies.

QUARRY / MASONS’ MARKS

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The abutments supporting the bridges along Colliers Way were dressed in stone which the masons marked, probably before the stone left the quarry.  These examples are taken from Jericho Bridge.

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26th June 2018 / 3pm – 4.40pm

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Weather Conditions:   Hot, sunny and breezy / Temperature:  28 C / 82 F

Another hot day with cloudless blue skies but thankfully a wonderfully fresh breeze to make the temperature bearable.

The stream was utterly and completely dry and there were hardly any birds, Blue Tits, Blackbirds, Chiff Chaffs, Robins, Wrens and a solitary Song Thrush the only ones singing apart from the croak of a passing Raven.   We wonder how they are faring with so little water around.

It’s very many years since we have had such a prolonged period of unbroken sunshine and lack of rain and it is very noticeable in the sun-baked paths, bleached crop fields and drooping plants.  In cooler summers the flowers linger longer but this year they are blooming, fading and dropping in the heat in what seems a blink of an eye.  We had hoped to see the seasonal mass Meadow Brown cloud over the privet hedges but the flowers were almost all over and although there were lots of Meadow Browns, nowhere near in the same numbers.

This was also true all along the Way; lots of butterflies including Speckled Wood, Large White, Green Veined White, as well as the brilliantly coloured Comma and Small Copper.  It was quite lovely to sit on the puzzle bench on the edge of the Butterfly Glade and watch two Commas chasing each other high up on the tree canopy before fluttering down to feed on the last of the elder flowers.  We had our first sighting of a Brimstone Moth this year and first ever sight of a delicate looking Small Emerald Moth which we disturbed as we clambered around in the undergrowth checking on the numbers of Common Spotted Orchids.

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Sadly, due to the pretty savage spring cut along the verges of the cycle path, we could only find one solitary Pyramidal Orchid, a huge change from last year when the Orchids lined the path in some profusion. The management team have the pretty unenviable task of ensuring the path is safe for cyclists, including many young children, and allowing undisturbed edges for wild flowers.  The sheer number and diversity of the plant and insect species along the Way, especially in contrast to the barren acres of the adjoining arable land, shows that they are succeeding very well, but of course there are difficult choices which have to be made and some species will inevitably suffer loss.

Great excitement as we walked down the path heading for home we suddenly caught sight of a Brown Hare walking nonchalantly across the adjoining pasture land towards the thickly wooded hedgerow.  This is the first hare we have spotted for over a year and although it was on the opposite side of the cycle path to previous sightings, that was still only about 200 metres away as the crow flies.  As it is also a completely different season, it does indicate that the hare is almost certainly resident in the area.

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John Hansford has successfully captured a fast-moving Common Lizard on Colliers Way, brilliantly highlighting its extraordinary skin and claws.  Although these lizards are the most common reptiles in the British Isles they are nevertheless protected in the UK under the Wildlife and Countryside Act, 1981, and classified as a Priority Species in the UK Biodiversity Action Plan. It’s good to see more evidence of the thriving colonies along the Way.

21st June 2018

– Summer Solstice –

13th June 2018 / 1.15pm – 3.10pmDSCN4185.JPG

Weather Conditions:   Cloudy,  cool, a few bright intervals.  Temperature: 21.5 C – 19 C / 70.7 F – 66.2 F

The path was strewn with immature field maple seeds, petals and summer leaves due to the strong breeze so we hurried to reach the protection of the trees although the sound of the groans and grunts from the rubbing branches made slightly alarming hearing!

A post from John Harris of the Mushroom Diary alerting us to what he believes to be the best of the bracket fungus, the Dryads Saddle (Pheasant Back Mushroom) which appears in woods around this time of the year so we were pleased to spot a good healthy looking group on a dead tree stump on the old railway line at the foot of the steep embankment beside the path.  He even posts a link to a great simple recipe for the gastronomically adventurous.

The cloudy day didn’t make for a bumper butterfly display and true to form there were very few.  Five or so Speckled Wood, a Meadow Brown and a Small Tortoiseshell, not a great haul when there are so many flowering plants, although the privet on which we saw such a memorable display last year was not quite in full bloom.

DSCN4194.JPGWall-Rue

The stream bed was bone dry throughout its length but fortunately there are lots of gaps made by animals (probably badgers) pushing through the hedges into the fields beyond where there are two sizeable ponds and a spring fed stream.  The badgers have also been very busy, leaving lots of snuffle holes in the earth and amongst the undergrowth and have, as usual, trampled down all of the roast-beef plants sometimes called stinking iris which we have yet to see in flower.  It is said that the foliage is acrid and sweetly foetid when crushed so although we didn’t check to find out, maybe badgers just love the smell.

Most of the birds including Whitethroats, Chaffinches, Bullfinches, Magpies and Wrens were sheltering from the wind and we were only aware of their presence from their calls and songs but the Raven and a couple of Buzzards could be seen braving the skies as did a solitary Swallow, skimming low over a field.

We met a young woman with a pair of twin boys of about three years old and two dogs.  She said that she and a friend had been walking the path since the children were babies as it was one of the very few places which could accommodate a twin buggy and dogs even in the boggiest, wettest, snowiest days of midwinter.  The boys were entranced and intrigued by the dry river bed, even though they were deprived of their usual soaking paddle.

3rd June 2018

John Hansford has reported the sighting of a Nightingale in a new area – very exciting to think that this may be a follow on from successful breeding last year.  He heard a Sedge Warbler singing strongly from the reed bed and 4 Garden Warblers (there are five Garden Warbler territories on this stretch of the cycle path which is very good and one of the best stretches in the whole of Somerset for this species).  John also captured the caterpillar filled web of the Small Eggar Moth.

DSCN9989.JPG Small Eggar Moth caterpillars – c. John Hansford

The Small Eggar Moth, formerly quite common, is now a scarce and local species, due mainly to the gradual destruction of its favourite habitat, hedgerows.  The adults, which fly in February and March, are seldom seen, but the larvae, when present, live gregariously in silken webs on the food plant, hawthorn (Crataegus) and blackthorn (Prunus spinosa). It is now restricted to a few scattered colonies in England and Ireland, and a few localities in Wales.  http://ukmoths.org.uk/

2nd June 2018 / 20 C DSCN9867.JPG

Brilliant photograph from John Hansford of a male Broad-Bodied Chaser Dragonfly.  In his email he says: “I managed a 45 minute visit to the Cycle Path today and highlights included 1 Red Kite, 2 Garden Warblers on feeding runs, 2 Spotted Flycatchers, 2 Orange Tip, 5 Male & 1 Female Common Blue, 5 Speckled Wood, 1 Brimstone, 2 Large Skippers.”  Highlights indeed – a goodly haul in such a short time.

DSCN9972.JPGSpotted Flycatcher – c. John Hansford

30th May 2018 / 3.15pm – 4.55pmDSCN4062.JPG

Weather Conditions:   Heavy low cloud, dank, chill, north-easterly breeze, poor visibility. 16 C / 60.8 F

Much to our chagrin, unavoidable commitments and poor weather conditions meant we missed the optimum time for hearing the Nightingales along the Way so it was with some trepidation that we approached last year’s site on one of the few days this week when it wasn’t raining or thundering and lightening.

Fortunately amongst the trills of Blackbirds, Song Thrushes, Whitethroats, Chiff Chaffs and Willow Warblers we were excited to hear the distinctive notes of the Nightingale.  A little muted (and who can blame him given the weather) and only one (there were two last year) but we counted our blessings, relaxed and listened again to the enchantment of the Nightingales song – magical.  The delight we felt in hearing the Nightingale slightly off-set our disappointment that there appeared to be no Goldfinches, Greenfinches, no Blackcaps or Garden Warblers, no Swifts, House Martins or Skylarks and not one raptor, all of which we noted in numbers in previous years.  We can only presume the chilly rain, high winds and thunder storms have seriously reduced the number of insects – confirmed perhaps by a dead bee caught in the stem of a plant – starved of nectar from late flowering plants?

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The other striking observation along the path was the sheer abundance and overwhelming lushness of the undergrowth.  Grasses nearly five feet tall, tangled thickets of wood sorrel, cow parsley, bladder Campion, hedge mustard, clumps of moon daisies and shocking pink Campion, falling strands of dog rose and both white and black bryony, their tendrils curling up stems of plants.  Golden buttercups and tiny bright blue bird’s-eye speedwell fight for space with yellow archangel, hop trefoil and the bright purple-magenta dove’s foot cranesbill and common vetch while the creamy elderflower and pink hawthorn blossoms scent the air but a complete absence of a single butterfly during the whole of our walk.

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There were bees and midges in plenty (although not as many as one would expect at this time of the year) but this is the time when one would expect to see clouds of butterflies all along the verges and up in the trees and not to see even one is yet a further comment on the truly awful unseasonal weather we have been experiencing for most of this spring and early summer.

It was no surprise to spot the red-headed cardinal beetle lurking in the undergrowth, hungrily watching for prey, they usually appear about now, but a Mayfly – ephemera danica – rising from rivers and streams over the last fortnight but appearing here, above a tarmac path about 100 yards from the large tree-lined pond?  Unlikely to find a mate over here!

One good discovery was the sight of three large clumps of Spring Fieldcap fungus growing on the bed of wood chippings which we had been checking over the year in the expectation of finding some sort of fungi growing there and on the point of abandoning the search.  We had, quite wrongly, expected to see fungi on this spot in autumn; a timely lesson – in nature, always prepare for the unexpected!

19th May 2018

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15th May 2018 / 2.20pm – 4.50pm

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Weather Conditions:   Hot summer’s day with clear blue skies and burning sun.  Delightfully cool under the shade of the trees in full leaf / 21 C / 69.5 F

An explosion of blossom along the Way.  The unseasonally cold weather of April and the beginning of May had held back the flowering of most plants but several days of summer-like heat encouraged the trees to throw out quite spectacular displays of blossom.

 The apples, wayfarings, field maples and hawthorns were heavy with flowers, and the grass verges were filled with the still flowering cowslips and violets of spring which merged with the early purple orchids, twayblades and summer drifts of red Campion, deep blue birds-eye speedwell and clouds of white cow parsley whose sweet perfume almost drowned out the rank scent of the hawthorn blossom.

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Peacock, Orange Tip, Speckled Wood and Brimstone butterflies were joined by an unexpected visitor from a nearby pond in the shape of a Female Beautiful Demoiselle damselfly with its stunning combination of brilliant metallic blue body and copper coloured wings, and later by a huge queen Hornet busily zooming around the undergrowth searching for a suitable nest site.

It was quite shocking to see the carefully constructed compost site formed by a large square of logs had been set alight since our last visit reducing all the compost to ash and the logs to charred remains.  The vast majority of visitors respect the hard work of the volunteers but it only needs one hooligan to destroy weeks and weeks of effort.  However, the resilience of Sustrans and its volunteers was restated by the new name signs on many of the trees (the common and Latin names) which is a welcome addition to the woodland stretches and particularly helpful in winter.

Another shock was the gruesome sight of a badger carcass draped over a tree.  Possibly the remains of an old badger thrown up into the tree for foxes, raptors and carrion crows to feed on before the insects can also begin to feast.  The tree trunk just below the carcass was bare of the moss which coated all the surrounding trees and which might be from foxes scratching the moss with their front paws as they supported themselves while tearing at the meat.

The stream was reduced to a mere trickle falling over the stones, the woods were very quiet apart from that lovely summer sound of droning hover flies and birdsong from Chiff Chaffs, Blackbirds and Whitethroats and as a final reward on the last few hundred yards down to the road we suddenly caught sight of a Red Kite wheeling and circling overhead.  Such excitement – our first sighting around Colliers Way of this spectacular bird!  A fitting end to a wonderfully sunny afternoon.

6th May 2018

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John Hansford managed to capture two brilliant photographs (one shown here) of Lesser Whitethroats – they are so difficult to see as they skulk half hidden, let alone photograph.  He was also lucky enough to spot a stoat (surely the most appealing of our small mammals) bounding along the path in front of him as well as  a Holly Blue butterfly, Common Whitethroats and Garden Warblers – a great day!

1st May 2018 1.50pm – 3.55pm

orange tip April 2018- john hansford.jpgOrange Tip Butterfly – John Hansford

Weather Conditions:

Strong blustery cold wind, intermittent sunshine on an otherwise cloudy afternoon /12 degrees centigrade / 53 degrees Fahrenheit

It was complete serendipity to meet Lydia Blake and Andrew Marchant who were assessing the next section of the path to be monitored just as we arrived at the entrance to the cycle path.  Lydia is the Greener Greenways Project officer for Sustrans and her remit covers a huge area of the South of England.  She brings a massive amount of experience, expertise and knowledge of ecology and environmental concerns to her job (her MA is in Environmental Management) together with a tremendous amount of energy and enthusiasm and Andrew Marchant is the indefatigable co-manager of the Great Elm Embankment and one of the founder members and a leading light in the Frome’s Missing Links programme.

It was so interesting to catch up with them both and hear about Lydia’s plans for a whole series of surveys on the Greener Greenways path.  The very successful reptile survey which was carried out last year is to be followed this year by a Moth survey, a Bat walk, and both a Hedgehog and a Dormouse survey.  Surprisingly Lydia said that there are very few hedgehog surveys and although there is widespread belief that their numbers are falling drastically, there is no baseline in this area from which to judge.013921ccbd56817166eae3ddc12fdbdd.jpg

We were intrigued to learn that for the dormouse survey, an ink pad and a sheet of paper is laid down so that when the dormice scamper across both, they leave a good line of tracks.  The drawback to this system is that vegetable ink has to be used for the safety of the dormice but if the papers are not collected quickly, slugs come along and eat all the track prints!

By far the most exciting prospect perhaps is the planned series of trips with local schoolchildren (and their parents and teachers) to the path.  They will be bussed out to the site and spend a couple of hours exploring the environment.  We were all shocked by a recent revelation that many children are so removed from nature and the countryside that they can no longer recognise even the most common plants and butterflies and Sustrans Greener Greenways project is one of the few organisations to immediately address the problem and come up with a solution.  Lydia mentioned that Alistair Millington (Sustrans Land Manager for the South of England) who had been working with them had spotted what he suspected might be a species of brome rape which caused great excitement due to its exceptional rarity, although they will not know for sure until it flowers. He had also thought that there was a good possibility of Dormice and Hedgehogs in numbers along this section of Colliers Way.

Fewer birds than the same day last year but not surprising perhaps given the unseasonably cold winds and overall wet spring, no sign of Skylarks, Garden Warblers or Blackcaps but we did see other migrants like Willow Warblers, Whitethroats and Chiff Chaffs and heard the beautiful notes of a Song Thrush.DSCN3878.JPG

Many of the plants are late flowering – it is particularly noticeable with the apple trees which are still in tight bud even though the wild cherries are in full flower and the cherry plum flowers are already over.  Sad to see the end of the violet season which has given us so much pleasure but lovely to see so many deep yellow cowslips lining the path  and the birds eye speedwell and red campion heralding summer.

A really hopeful note of warmer weather coming some time is our first sight of a Speckled Wood butterfly another summer delight, both male and female Orange Tip butterflies (and lots and lots of garlic mustard plants for them to lay their eggs and a good few beautiful Brimstone, my favourite butterfly, although not as many as one would expect at this time of the year as a result of the cold dull weather.

18th April 2018 – 2pm – 4pmDSCN3789.JPG

Weather Conditions:   Very hot sun, strong warm breeze, cloudless blue skies.

Temperature:  22 degrees Centigrade / 71.6 degrees Fahrenheit

Extraordinary change in the weather from the heavy clouds, cold air, incessant rain and strong winds of the past month which delayed the spring flowering and led to water logged fields and acres of impassable mud for farm vehicles to the explosion of heat from the sudden soaring temperatures of today.  The sun was as hot and burning as August as it seems this year the seasons have contracted – winter bypassing spring to move straight into summer.

Signalling the recent cold spell, compared to this day last year, many plants have yet to bloom and very few butterflies have appeared.  Although it was lovely to see so many Brimstones and several Peacocks, they are very late and there were no Speckled Woods, Holly Blues, Tortoiseshells or Orange Tips.  The apple tree leaves are only just opening when last year the flowers were in full glorious bloom, all the trees were in full leaf whereas today they are just beginning to open and the fields last year were covered in a haze of green shoots but today the fields are still brown and bare, just rows of wet clods of drying mud.

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However, the blossom on the cherry trees lining the hedgerows has opened if not fully, the primroses are thick with flowers, the cowslips are opening, the delicate white and the large dark purple dog violets are showing a bumper year so thickly are their plants colonising the embankment.  Large mounds of meadow ant nests are scattered amongst the thick grass, great fat bumble bees are lumbering up and down the slope among the violets, honey bees are on the nectar hunt and on the bare well trodden earth around the picnic bench the mining bees are emerging in numbers for the first time this year.

The  Chiffchaffs, Common Whitethroats and Willow Warblers have arrived to join the Great Tits, Blue Tits, Chaffinchs, Wrens, Robins and Dunnocks in the hedgerows and the strong smell of woodsmoke drifting across the path from spring clearing of dead plants shows very clearly that winter is finally last over.

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Standing below the cherry trees and watching the mating dance of four male Brimstone butterflies with a single pale female was delightful.  “Fluttering and dancing in the breeze” was a rather more accurate description of these butterflies than of the poet’s daffodils as they chased and tried to attract the female but then dropped off one by one when unsuccessful, eventually leaving just one solitary male.  When he also lost interest and also flew away, he was immediately pursued by the female, fluttering her wings.  He engaged for a few moments but then abandoned the courtship altogether, deciding food was more important, and the female was left alone.

3rd April 2018 – 2.20pm – 4.05pmDSCN3731.JPGSticky Buds

Weather Conditions:    Brisk, blustery southerly breeze, sunny intervals.

Temperature:  12 degrees Centigrade /  53 degrees Fahrenheit

Despite the blustery wind tossing the bare branches and newly emerging leaves, the sun was warm and the air mild and the first scents of spring filled the air.  The plants, bees and birds seemed to be shaking off the winter chills so the white Dog Violets sparse only ten days ago were now plentifully scattered all along the verges, the primroses are flowering in profusion on the banks and at last the pollen has begun to appear on some of the pussy willows.  The extraordinary number of large Bumble Bees (newly minted with their glossy shiny black and yellow coats) fiercely buzzing and two Honey Bees and the two Peacock Butterflies were such a welcome sight – confirmation at last that spring really is here and summer does exist.

Lots of bird song, including the first Chiffchaff of the year and the first Swallow which although it doesn’t make a summer it’s another herald of spring.  We also heard a Skylark, another first for us this year, although Andrew heard a couple of Skylarks as long ago as the end of January.

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The path was very busy including a group of half a dozen horse riders, probably from a riding school, the little girls perched high on their fat grass bellied little white ponies, evoking fond memories of Thelwell’s famous cartoons, many cyclists and runners and lots of walkers who were eager to swap sightings.  Catherine and Geoff from Peasedown St John heard their first Chiffchaff two weeks ago and saw a pair of Nuthatches and a Brimstone butterfly on the same day; more recently, as they walk the path each day, they’ve been watching a pair of Great Tits creating a nest at the top of a hollow pipe.

We chatted to a man walking his dog who recently came upon two Roe Deer as he rounded the corner, actually on the path which was unusual;  immediately on sighting him, they leapt the fence and bounded away across the fields in the direction of Babington Woods.  Another couple we often see were really excited about seeing what they were sure was a Hawfinch over a week ago – if it was, it’s the second such sighting this year so far.

The warm sun and mild air cheered everyone we met as much as us.  Let’s hope for all our sakes, people, birds, butterflies and animals alike, that the last of the cold wintry weather is behind us.

Birds:

Chiffchaff, Swallow, Skylark, Chaffinch, Goldfinch, Dunnock, Great Tit, Wood Pigeon, Pheasant, Crow, Blackbird, Wren, Heron, Jay, Robin, Song Thrush.

Plants:

White and Purple Dog Violet, White Deadnettle, Lesser Celandine, Primrose, Cowslip, Dog’s Mercury, Dandelion, Cleavers, Wild Chive, Hairy Bittercress. Yellow pollen on the pussy willows.  Fungus: Scarlet Elf Cap.

Animals:

2 Peacock Butterflies, 10 Buff-tailed Bumble Bees, 2 Honey Bees, 3 unidentified Bumble Bees.

23rd March 2018 – 2pm – 4.15pmDSCN2753.JPG

Weather Conditions:             Cloudy, hazy sun, mild, cool breeze.

Temperature:                11 degrees Centigrade / 51 degrees Fahrenheit

It was quiet along the path, particularly in the shelter of the trees.  Very few signs of nest building among the small number of birds we saw, very little bird song and still no sight or sound of a Chiffchaff.  Although lots of the early spring plants were in flower, their display seemed tentative and rather sparse compared to earlier years and it certainly felt more like late Winter than early Spring.  This thought was reinforced by the bank of snow still lining the north side of the field boundary hedge above Newbury Firs – the old country saw that seeing lingering snow was a sign of more to come seemed, in view of the long term weather forecast, a very strong possibility.

However, the bells of Mells Church were ringing out across the fields, the clumps of spotted leaves of the early purple orchid were well grown and it was good to see the golden saxifrage’s tiny delicate flowers in full bloom, forming a sprinkling of yellow over the carpet of green under the tall trunks of the ash grove.DSCN3681.JPG

The ecology group of volunteers were busily engaged in their last cut of the year due to the onset of the nesting season.  They are hoping that by cutting and clearing away the thick undergrowth and brambles and pruning the trees, it will allow more sunlight onto the banks to encourage more wild flowers and extend the dog violet season.  If successful, the plan is to lure other species of fritillaries to join the Silver Washed Fritillaries which currently bring so much delight to warm summer days.

Andrew Marchant, who is managing the Great Elm embankment area, also mentioned that the watercourse formed from the seepage and field run off at the top of the hill had deposited tufa (or calcium carbonate) on the bed of the stream down most of its length.  We have seen wonderfully shaped flowstone formed from a similar deposit in one of the tributaries to the River Frome some 3 or 4 miles away.

Birds:

Chaffinch, Blue Tit, Long Tailed Tit, Blackbird, Robin, Jackdaw, Rook, Crow, Wood Pigeon, Pheasant.

Plants:

Shepherd’s Cress, Golden Saxifrage, Cowslip, Primrose, Grape Hyacinth, Wood Anemone, Dog Violet, Dandelion, Lesser Celandine,

Animals:    Unidentified Bee.

20th March 2018

–   Vernal Equinox   –

13th March 2018 – 2.25pm – 4.20pmDSCN3669.JPG

Weather Conditions:  Clear and sunny, floating clouds, fresh stiff breeze.

Temperature:   12-13 degrees Centigrade / 53-55 degrees Fahrenheit

Although the stiff breeze still had the chilly edge of winter, in sheltered spots the sun had a welcome spring-like warmth, a sign that this long, sapping winter is drawing towards its close.  The clumps of purple dog violets along the south facing embankment looked a little bedraggled and the white violets, restricted on one area, are only just opening and fewer in number and the primroses are also looking battered from being buried under the recent snow, drifts of which are still visible under some hedges.  Only the occasional blackthorn spray is flowering and the pussy willows are showing white but looked cramped rather than the explosion of fluff and yellow pollen we expected, given the very early spring growth before the snow.  Like us, they need to be flooded with days of warm sunshine to give of their best.

We squelched through thick layers of sodden moss, avoiding the deep puddles, in our search for awakening life but, apart from a bee emerging from the shelter of the tufts of long grass, we were unsuccessful.  Even the bee’s tentative foraging was brief and he soon returned to the warmth of his hole in the ground. DSCN3674.JPG

The stream was deep and calm, with barely a ripple disturbing its surface, the fields were filled with noisy Rooks and Jackdaws feeding on the grass, joined by the occasional strutting Pheasant squawkingly announcing its importance while a pair of Buzzards circle lazily overhead, searching for action.

We sat and rested on the oak bench facing the fields between Cranmore and Mells Church towers which was sheltered from the wind.  Lifting our faces to soak in the warmth of the sun, our minds gradually quietened and stilled and all life’s difficulties slowly ebbed away.

Birds:  Yellowhammer, Magpie, Wren, Song Thrush, Robin, Blackbird, Coal Tit, Long Tailed Tit, Great Tit, Blue Tit, Bullfinch, Chaffinch, Dunnock, Pheasant, Rook, Jackdaw, Wood Pigeon, Buzzard.

Plants:  Coltsfoot, Hairy Bittercress, Violet (white and purple) Dandelion, Primrose, Lesser Celandine, Blackthorn, Goats Willow, Red Deadnettle, White Deadnettle, Dog’s Mercury, Bird’s Eye Speedwell, Crocus, Snowdrop.

4th March 2018 – 2.35m – 3.55pmDSCN3627.JPG

Weather Conditions:  Bright intervals, patchy cloud, blue sky deteriorating to icy sleet.

Temperature:   8.5 degrees Centigrade / 47 degrees Fahrenheit

A sudden rise in temperature  which signalled a quick thaw was helped by heavy rainstorms from late afternoon yesterday and overnight and miraculously the world is transformed!  The impassable roads are open, the gutters are full, streaming with water and clearing dirty, slushy heaps of fast melting snow.  All the ditches alongside the path are half full rivulets of gleaming black meltwater from which the thick emerald green moss and blades of harts tongue ferns stand newly washed and glowing.  The sound of rushing snow melt fills the otherwise quiet scene as the run off from the fields flood down the embankments and joins the tumbling waters of the stream.DSCN3628.JPG

Some parts of the cycle path have only partially thawed and still show faint signs of the recent snowfall, and what had been a path through the woods has now become a new stream, carefully following the twists and turns of the track around trees and shrubs and forming boggy patches in the sodden ground.  No sign of roosting raptors now, merely the remains of an old kill, the pheasant feathers bedraggled and torn.  Three Buzzards rise slowly, glorious and sublime from a low hedgerow at the edge of the wood, gliding across the field, flaunting their beautiful wing markings – huge, powerful and impressive.

The distressing sight of the mangled trees and shrubs bordering the path show the depressing signs that the contract hedge cutters have been busy, dragging their machine’s robotic flail through old birds’ nests and newly sprouting leaf buds alike, leaving the raw remains of broken snapped branches exposed to the elements and the cycle path thickly strewn with small sharp cuttings and twigs, catastrophic to bicycle tyres and dogs’ paws.

As we turned for home, the dirty sooty looking threatening clouds eventually released their load and we hurried through a sudden squall of yet more icy sleety drenching rain, while jackdaws and rooks called throatily as they flew above us, soon joined by the croak of the raven.

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A few fresh and perfect Primrose flowers rising pristine above the soggy ground, a few battered looking Dog’s Mercury and the occasional splash of vivid Scarlet Elf Cup were welcome signs of nature’s resilience to last week’s unseasonal return to winter.

Lots of parents and hoards of children, shrieking, dancing and gambolling along the path, cycling, pushing scooters, each other – jubilantly celebrating their release from nearly a week of sub-zero temperatures and frozen snow.  Many walkers, a couple of runners and two cyclists.

Birds:

Great Tit, Coal Tit, Blue Tit, Long-tailed Tit, Robin, Blackbird, Jackdaw, Rook, Buzzard, Raven, Carrion Crow, Pheasant, Wood Pigeon, Lesser Black Backed Gull.

28th February – 3rd March 2018snowman 004.JPG

Sub-zero temperatures followed by snow making roads impassable and villages and the cycle path cut off.  Testing times for the wildlife along the Way.

Today is World Wildlife Day a day for celebration but which makes this article in The Independent newspaper even more disturbing reading : UK’s Favourite Wildlife  It also reinforces just how important a resource wildlife corridors like Colliers Way route 24 is in providing suitable habitats for a wide variety of diminishing and threatened species like the Hedgehog, Nightingale, Skylark, Corn Buntings, Tree Sparrows, birds of prey and butterflies.

It is sad to realise that the publication of Silent Spring more than fifty years ago did nothing to reverse this disastrous drive which has been so devastating to wildlife and we can only hope that this new book Dead Zone will be more successful in turning the tide.

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Clustered Brittlestems (Psathyrella multipedata) – Many thanks to John Harris for identifying this fungi for us.  Visit his brilliant website for further information – mushroom diary

20th February 2018  3pm – 4.30pm

Weather Conditions:  Sunny, fair weather clouds.

Temperature:   9-8 degrees Centigrade / 48-46 degrees Fahrenheit

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The path was bathed in warm sunlight and protected from the wind so it felt quite spring like walking along the dappled path and standing watching the hordes of Tits, Robins, Wrens and Bullfinches trilling and chattering as they streamed through the trees, back and forth across the path with their non-stop twittering.

The stream, gin clear and surprising deep in places, confirming that we have had a period of high rainfall as well as cold days.  As we walked deeper into the wood, we were surrounded by birds in full voice, echoing between the trees, heralding the spring, accompanied by the gurgling and bubbling of the stream.

From the beautiful rich melodic songs of the Blackbird and the Song Thrush to the squawking Pheasants and penetrating clacks and wheezing and calls of the Rooks and Jackdaws, that wonderful winter sound.  Lovely to see the first of the spring flowers beginning to open and to watch a Buzzard swoop down and join its mate roosting dozily on a low branch, before it rose majestically into the sky and continued its hunt.  Unlikely sighting of a Heron hunting the stream, rising slowly with leisurely flaps of his huge wings as we arrived and being joined by a small flock of Field Fares who had been searching the field for food

A few cyclists, one runner, no other walkers – quiet, peaceful and serene!

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Sustrans are busy clearing around the old railway tracks.

Birds:  Heron, Buzzard, Song Thrush, Bullfinch, Robin, Wren, Dunnock, Long-tailed Tit, Blue Tit, Great Tit, Blackbird, Field Fare, Jackdaw, Rook, Magpie, Raven, Gull, Carrion Crow, Wood Pigeon, Pheasant. Plants:  Primrose, Dog’s Mercury, Lesser Celandine, Daisy, Dandelion, White Deadnettle. Fungus: Scarlet Elf Cup, Clustered Brittlestem.

15th February 2018    1pm – 2.40pmDSCN3527.JPGWaterlogged Fields

Weather Conditions:        Intermittent sun and scudding clouds darkening as we walked; bitter wind.

Temperature:                 7 – 6.5 degrees Centigrade / 44 – 43 degrees Fahrenheit

Cold and sunny with a strong south westerly wind driving the rain clouds closer until we caught the edge of a hail storm, the icy drops cutting our faces and making our ears hurt.  How heartening then to see first a single flower on a Violet plant, its purple bud just on the point of opening, a brilliant yellow bud of a Celandine, one spray of pristine white flowers on the Blackthorn, lots of Dog’s Mercury green-yellow flower heads filling their stems and a blood red female flower on the Hazel about to burst – despite the weather, Spring cannot be far away.

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As we arrived on the path, we were met by three Ravens, playing in the wind, calling out as they flew over. Flocks of Jackdaws and Rooks hunted across the sodden fields and a single Song Thrush welcomed the brief spell of sunshine by singing lustily from a stand of trees.  A party of at least a dozen Chaffinches flashed past, Bullfinches busied themselves amongst the emerging leaf buds and Great Tits and Blue Tits flitted from branch to branch, constantly on the move amid Blackbirds and Robins.  As the weather worsened, first one, then two, then three flocks of Redwings and Fieldfares streamed across the path above us and disappeared into the fields beyond, chuckling as they went.

It is Half Term so there were small boys on bikes and small girls on scooters with parents and grandparents, lots of walkers with dogs, runners and cyclists all attempting to catch a spell of dry weather after yesterday’s torrential rainfall.

We chatted with an older couple from Coleford who were surprised not to hear any Great Spotted Woodpeckers as they had been hearing them drumming away every morning for nearly a month close to their house.  We had certainly heard both Great Spotted and Green Woodpeckers along the path in the first week of February last year.

We met another couple from Peasedown St John who had a Google app on their smart phone and were able to distinguish a Mistle Thrush farther down the path and they had also seen lots of Long Tailed Tits near the puzzle bench.  They showed us pictures on their phone of the small lake towards the Kilmersden end of the path and recommended the village pub there, the Joliffe Arms, as a good stopover for lunch.  This is the pub with the brass plaque in the shape of a shield attached to the wall displaying the phrase “IN 1832 ON THIS SPOT NOTHING HAPPENED”.

As we trudged back along the path, cold to the marrow from the driving, freezing, cutting wind, we watched the huge black menacing rain cloud being blown across the sky, revealing the sun at last.  Just before we reached the end of the walk, as the sky became a deep Reckitt blue and the whole scene was bathed in bright winter sunshine, we began to feel some sympathy with the writers of the 1832 brass plaque.

7th February 2018 – 10.45am – 12.15pmDSCN3503.JPG

Weather Conditions:             Full sun, biting wind, crisp with clear  blue skies and thick hoar frost.

Temperature:                        1.5 – 4.5 degrees Centigrade /  34.7 – 40.1 degrees Fahrenheit

Brilliantly clear, cold and crisp – a perfect winter’s morning walk.  The icy wind cut our faces thus encouraging us to set a brisk pace in an attempt to keep warm.

A couple of men from Sustrans were hard at work shovelling and clearing the edges of the cycle path. Over the past weeks they have been steadily working their way from Great Elm; it’s a back-breaking job which according to the men will only last a couple of years before the earth and grass begins to edge farther and farther onto the path, eating up the space left for cyclists and walkers. Their work covers large areas of the South West but they have a particular liking for this stretch of Colliers Way as everyone they meet is so friendly, including the local farmer from Mells Down who had offered to help by clearing the edges with his JCB. All of us who use the path are very grateful for their hard work keeping the path cared for, none more so than the Robins, Dunnocks and Finches hopping around, pecking at the newly turned earth, searching for juicy morsels on such a freezing cold day.

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As we arrived, a huge cloud of several hundred Rooks, Crows and Jackdaws rose en masse from an area of standing corn where they had been feeding, soared and swirled, flocking across the fields towards the mature trees strung along the hedgerows where they spiraled around before settling to roost and preen.

All the birds were very busy today hunting and foraging amongst the branches. Parties of finches including several pairs of Bullfinches, Chaffinches, a Goldfinch flashing his beautiful scarlet faces and yellow wings, lots of Blue Tits (several pairs) and pairs of Great Tits, and a few Wrens.  Every few yards it seems a tree supports a Robin, shouting lustily at each passer-by, Blackbirds and Wood Pigeons were busy among the trees and we could hear the Pheasants squawking whilst strutting the adjoining fields, hopefully avoiding the frozen puddles.  The same clumps of primroses which have been flowering since Boxing Day are still in full flower as is the occasional Dandelion.

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The bank above the shallow watercourse is pitted all along its length with rabbit holes which are hidden most of the year by thick plants and undergrowth but are exposed during winter.  The farmer’s field beyond the hedge at the top of the bank is where we see dozens of rabbits feeding in spring and summer although they are nowhere to be seen at this time of the year.

The hedgerows which line the path and embankment the length of Colliers Way with their mixture of deciduous trees and shrubs are a haven for wildlife and luckily appear to support a good number of hedgehogs from what we have been told.  This is very heartening as a report published today shows a pretty catastrophic decline in hedgehog numbers in rural areas, a plunge of 97% since the 1950s and plummeting by more than half since the year 2000.  It is astonishing how far they roam according to the same report – a single hedgehog travels as much as 1-2km a night in search of food and usually ranges over an area of 10 hectares (24.7 acres).  The 23 mile long hedgerows, banks and scrub of Colliers Way must offer rich pickings for hungry hedgehogs!

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1st February 2018   –  Imbolc

31st January 2018  – Blue Moon?cornerhouse obstructions 3 020 (2).jpg

28th Jauary 2018 –  2.15pm – 4pm

Weather Conditions:          Grey overcast skies, strong wind, fine drizzle, occasional   bursts of weak winter sun.

Temperature:           11.5 degrees Centigrade / 52 degrees Fahrenheit

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A large flock of wood pigeons appeared high over the path, tossed like autumn leaves across the sky by the strong south westerly wind and we were glad to reach the protection of the trees, away from the wind which, despite the mild temperature was pretty chilly.  We heard two Jays arguing vociferously and noisily as we passed, perhaps over prey, whilst numerous Robins shouted their defence of their territory, Chaffinches pinked, a Nuthatches sharply called, a Blackbird sent out his alarm call, alerting all to our presence, while Buzzards mewed constantly overhead announcing it was mid-winter in the woods lest we had forgotten.

On the ground in amongst the trees on both sides of the path there were many clumps of clover and lords and ladies, (arums) poking through between repeated groups of scattered feathers, mostly wood pigeon, showing where birds of prey had enjoyed their feasts and one clump of hen pheasant feathers on the bank below the badger setts, possibly a fox’s leavings after he had eaten his fill.  Many, many more new plants, nettles, herb robert, ground ivy appearing on the edges of the path and new leaves bursting out all along the trailing honeysuckle.