Wildway Route 24

27th October 2022 / Temp: 17 C / 2.35pm – 4.20 pm

Traffic jam at the crossroads this afternoon – if only we’d caught some dog walkers, runners, skateboarding children, we would had captured a full house but with two female horse-riders, a cyclist and an old gentleman carrying his folding stool – an update on the shooting stick for those of advancing years, we still managed a good cross section of those who love the path!

Strong winds were not tossing the buds of May but tossing the golden and copper leaves of October and swirling them around our heads – the colours might be autumnal but the temperature was more like summer – what a strange year this has been, drought draining our rivers of water, wild birds dropping from the skies with a virulent strain of bird ‘flu and now at the end of October warm winds and thunder storms! We spotted a few bumble bees hunting around the white deadnettle flowers which fortunately flower throughout the year, hoverflies feeding on the few scattered dandelions, their bright sunshine yellow a welcome splash of colour as was the lone Red Admiral butterfly we saw fluttering by.

The days of heavy thunderstorms arrived at exactly the right time as this has by common agreement been one of the best ever years for fungus and every website, twitter feed and nature diary has been over-flowing with the most extraordinary photographs of mushrooms, lichen, moss and slime mould. We couldn’t resist adding a few of our own, the tiny bells of the bonnets half hidden among the leaf litter and a new species to us, the mysterious Yellowing Knight, one of the troop of beech knights.

Although this one looks apprehensive or is he merely pensive? He had no comment to make.

Disappointing that the Shaggy Inkcap, Hare’s Foot and even the occasional White Saddle mushrooms which we used to see lining the path seem to have disappeared completely. We noticed that the verge was mown as closely as a suburban lawn but whether this would account for no fungus we have no idea, still we did find a few where the trees were too close to the path for the verge to be cut.

The wind was very gusty and this may have had some effect on bird numbers – mostly bigger, stronger birds like a Buzzard, a couple of Ravens, a large flock of at last 50 Gulls flying over, too high up to identify but they made a striking display as the brilliant sunshine highlighted their wings against the bright blue sky.

Noisy pheasants accompanied most of our walk, crashing and squawking and flying around with a sudden clap clap of their wings among the skeins of vivid scarlet black bryony berry festooned undergrowth. A handful of Carrion Crows were active, but the small birds seemingly remained quiet and hidden in the shelter of the trees and hedges and apart from catching sight of a small party of Longtailed Tits flitting from tree to tree and hearing 2 or 3 Blackbirds there was no sign.

It’s always wonderfully envigorating to be walking in high winds buffeting and swirling around us and driving good fresh air into sluggish indoor lungs, a view no doubt also held by the many cyclists whizzing by. A strange year it may be but it has offered a good many magical moments for which we can only be extremely grateful.

14th September 2022 / Temp: 19 C / 2.10pm – 4.20pm

It’s the blackberry season! The sun was as hot as a summer’s day, but it wasn’t just the blackberries, rose-hips and purple-black sloes which announced the season, it was the sudden disappearance of insects. A few desultory bees, ditto hoverflies, no beetles, or flying insects that we could see save a handful of Speckled Wood, one Comma, one Red Admiral – all flying high over the shrubs, in amongst the leaves of the trees and tangled old mans beard, the and four Whites too distant to be able to identify them.

But what was surprising was catching sight of three Migrant Hawker dragonflies. We often see the odd dragonfly hunting about the hedges and plants along the stretch of the path above the large pond, but never before three – two malesand a female. The air was very humid after days of heavy rain despite the hot sun, so perhaps there were lots of midges about.

Migrant Hawker copyright Chris Lythal

Bird life was pretty sparse, apart from one group of about a dozen twittering Goldfnches, all the rest spotted were in ones or twos, Great Tit, Blue Tit, Robin, Crow and Blackbird but we also heard the beautiful krk krk of a Raven flying over, the evocative mew of a circling Buzzard and the tuk tuk tuk warning sound of a couple of Pheasants hidden behind the hedge and a little gaggle of 4 young juvenile Pheasants, nervously scuttling around, as well they might as the shooting season is about to start at the beginning of October! We don’t know if the local shoot is one of the one-third of shoots which have been cancelled this year due to lack of birds occasioned by the ban on imported chicks given the spread of Bird flu being so severe this year.

23rd August 2022 / Temp: 25C / 3.15 – 4.50pm

Cloudy, overcast and humid but when the sun broke through it was burning hot, a real August sun. The grasses, plants and flowers were showing all the signs of a burnt and seared prairie, bleached by the sun, full of seeds, the air full of thistle down like a light snow flurry drifting across the landscape.

Adding to the atmosphere were three large birds, circling and swooping across the fields of maize, displaying their beautiful rich reddish-brown backs and deeply forked tail – Red Kites! Once we had latched onto them with our binoculars, it was entrancing to watch these magnificent, elegant birds go through their paces – a wonderful display.

So much fallen fruit under the trees at the orchard to the obvious delight of the wasps, joined by a few greenbottles and other flies who were enjoying a feast day. The hot sun this summer has certainly ripened the many Heritage apples, from the golden pippins with their flecks of red to these possibly Liberty apples, such a dark red to be almost plum coloured. As no-one appears to be harvesting the apples

this year, they are left for the insects, small mammals but also the foxes and badgers to feed up for winter – a great boon as windfall apples are a large part of the badgers’ autumn diet.

Speckled Wood Butterfly

A couple of Large Whites but very few butterflies, apart from at least half a dozen lovely Speckled Woods whose markings always remind us of dappled sunlight on damp, beaten earth paths. They are not choosy about their habitat, scrub, woodland edge, orchards, river banks, the downs, it only needs a cluster of trees and brambles it seems to attract these prolific butterflies which we catch sight of nearly everywhere.

Common Lizard

Our first sighting of lizards this year! What a relief, the south-facing embankment of the old disused railway line is the perfect habitat for these tiny little Common Lizards and we have always delighted in so large a colony thriving here. As the months passed, April, May, June when it wasn’t too hot for them and when we normally spot them – not a sign. We only saw two together basking on their ant hill home this afternoon, but still, a tremendously encouraging sight!

How lovely to see the elderberries ripening, full of sweet sugars, great pickings for the warblers, blackcaps and whitethroats as well as the blackbirds a small reward for delighting us with their beautiful song all through the spring months.

We heard a twittering of small birds and then watched the little flock of Goldfinches flitting between the bushes before disappearing out of sight. The raptors seemed to be out in force – after seeing the Red Kites we heard a young Buzzard crying out for food although we didn’t spot the adult, but we did hear the distinctive and wonderfully evocative croak of a Raven and glanced up to see two Ravens soaring and playing high over the stubbled fields.

A lovely afternoon, particularly when the breeze picked up which, together with a sprinkling of soft rain, made the perfect cooling and freshening of the sultry air.

31st July 2022 / Temp: 24.5 C / 3.40 – 5.20pm

A classic rural scene on a Sunday afternoon in high summer – golden stubbled fields, trees and hedges heavy with summer growth, blue skies and drifting floating island clouds, quiet and serene.

We perched on the wooden picnic benches in the shade of the ever encroaching shrubs and trees edging the woodland glade which give a perfect viewing platform to record numbers for the Big Butterfly count. The centre of the glade is dominated by a huge, spreading buddleia while several other smaller ones dot around the space and perimeter, including one next to where we were sitting. We had stopped visiting this area for two or three years after severe pruning wiped out the formerly thriving population of Silver-Washed Fritillaries, so you can imagine our delight when we spotted first one and then another of these beautiful butterflies. One or two don’t begin to match the numbers we used to see but at least they appear to be coming back – wonderful news!

Silver-Washed Fritillary

In just the 15 minutes allowed by the Big Butterfly Count, we spotted 5 Gatekeeper, 1 Red Admiral, 2 Silver-Washed Fritillaries, 1 Holly Blue, 1 Green Veined White and a group of 8 Large White butterflies either feeding on the buddleia or dancing together, whirling around each other, in an upward spiral high into the sky, while the male releases pheremones from scent glands in an effort to entice the female to mate – entrancing to watch.

Later, after we finished the count and walked up the tree-lined path we added more Gatekeeper, a few Meadow Brown, a couple of Brimstone, 3 Speckled Wood and a Small Skipper butterflies to our modest haul.

Kite-tailed Robber fly – Machimus atricapillus

After the Beauty of Butterflies comes the Beast of the Big Cats of the insect world: robberflies! Carnivorous as adults, and probably also as larvae, they certainly wouldn’t win any beauty contest, but as a new species to us along the cycle path, worth a second look. Identifying this robberfly as Machimus atricapillus is a little ambitious as there are six species of machimum, all very similar, and only differentiated by the the colour of their legs and wings which the indifferent photograph doesn’t allow.

Ash Trees

Lovely to walk through the Ash grove, the trees on either side of the path, such beautiful tall, graceful trees whose leaves can move in the direction of sunlight, and sometimes the whole crown of the tree may lean in the direction of the sun. Good to see that despite many bare branches, a good part of the trees appear to be surviving the ash die-back disease and still enhancing our woodlands. The young, green, immature seeds are edible and have been used in herbal medicine which may explain why in Norse legend the Ash was known as The Tree of Life.

15th July 2022 / Temp: 19 C / 10.05am – 12.20pm

Big Butterfly Count 2022

Out and about along the cycle path on the first day of the Big Butterfly Count an annual event promoted by the Butterfly Conservation Society to guage the health, or otherwise, of our Butterfly population. We usually take part and so it seemed a good opportunity to count the number and species we managed to see in the 15 minute time slot.

Gatekeeper Butterfly underwing

Whether it was the time of day, the dearth of pollen or the weather but the Butterflies seemed incredibly skittish and unwilling to settle, flitting from flower to flower along the hedgerows, almost impossible to photograph and even to identify Meadow Brown from Ringlet at such a distance so we blessed our butterfly binoculars which proved invaluable. The final count was 4 Meadow Brown, 2 Ringlet, 3 Gatekeeper, 4 Large White, 1 Red Admiral, 3 Speckled Wood and 1 Marbled White, not a massive number but not insignificant. We added a good number to that score during our visit including a 1 Small Skipper and a Comma – shame they weren’t spotted earlier and added to the count.

Small Skipper Butterfly

We had arrived at the path to be greeted with a small flock of Swallows hunting insects on the wing, swirling and twisting, turning and diving at top speed, almost faster than the eye could follow – such a delight whenever we see them, it’s impossible not to stop and watch their spectacular aerobatics. Butterflies and swallows, it must be midsummer – what joy!!

Such a greeting seemed to signal a good bird spotting morning but in fact apart from a couple of raptors, a Raven and Buzzard, the only other birds we heard or saw were a Crow, a few noisy Pheasants and of course the ubiquitous Crows.

Speckled Bush Cricket

However, hunting along the embankment for lizards (not a sign) we were rather thrilled to spot this Speckled Bush Cricket tucked in a bindweed flower, almost hidden amongst the tall grasses. Although it is the UK’s most common cricket was a first sighting for us, the Dark Bush Cricket is the one we see most often and in most numbers.

Nursery Web Spider

We also spotted another denizen of the long grass, a Nursery Web Spider, her web spotless and newly spun and no signs of eggs or spiderlings but it shouldn’t be long.

Although the temperature read a balmy 19 C the sun was burning hot in between moving from tree shade to hedge shade to tree shade, blessing our good fortune in chosing the time of day which offered the possibility of brief remission from the relentless heat and managing to leave as the sun reached its zenith and there was no more shade to be found.

Royal Entomological Society Insect Week 20-26th June 2022

Hairy Shieldbug

To read an account of our participation of this event and the number of new species to Colliers Way identified please see our BLOG pages.

20th June 2022 / Temp: 16-19 C / 9.50am-12.10pm

Heavenly morning! A day before the Summer Solstice (tomorrow being midsummer’s day) the longest day of the year, and the banks of flowers in full bloom, butterflies, bees, hoverflies, flower beetles, deep blue sky and hot sun, refreshed by the overnight rain certainly reflected summer at its most beautiful.

Walking Route 24

The path was lined with Moon Daisies (aptly named as they glow in the dark!) and umbellifers like cow parsley and the newly opened hogweed, one of our favourite summer flowers which always seems to attract the most insects like this Orange-belted Plumehorn hoverfly, a first for us along the path, although we see countless numbers of the pellucid fly it’s paler cousin.

Orange-belted Plumehorn

We soon reach the banks of bramble, trailing with tangled strands of black bryony, white bryony, wild roses and goose grass where we spotted the shiny black tubby little beetle who is often found sunning themselves among the hedgerow. This particular beetle rather than plodding across the path or stock still on a leaf seemed intent on a more adventurous way of spending his morning, suspended as he was on the end of a grass stalk!

Bloody-nosed Beetle

Lots of Speckled Wood butterflies in this the more shaded part of the path and we could hear Blackbirds, Song Thrushes, Common Whitethroats, Chaffinches and a Chiff Chaff singing and calling although for the most part well hidden amongst the thick summer foliage.

As we walked on past the trees and shrubs we reached the south-west facing tall and sloping disused railway embankment, a mass of grasses, yellow meadow anthills (sadly no basking lizards on top today!) and flowering wild plants where we caught sight of our first Labyrinth spider’s web, with attendant female sitting at the entrance.

Labyrinth Spider

Here the flowers attracted the most insects – Meadow Brown butterflies, a single Brimstone, several Marbled White, Large White, Red Admirals skittishly flitting from flower to flower, barely once settling to feed before moving onto the next – wonderful to watch but the very devil to photograph! Here’s one, lingering at last on a knapweed flower head, almost lost in amongst the birds foot trefoil, long enough to snap.

Meadow Brown Butterfly

17th May 2022 / Temp: 20.5 C / 12.30pm – 2.40 pm

After an unseasonably dry April, May has adjusted the weather by being unseasonably wet, and after thunderstorms in the night and more rain promised for the afternoon, we took the chance to walk the cycle path while it was dry and sunny. The tree branches were bowed down, heavy with the weight of May blossom, refreshed by the rain and blushing pink from the sun, while almost unnoticed, so tiny are they, as small at only 4mm, with a ridiculously inflated name for such a small creature, a mating pair of 14 spot ladybirds were also taking advantage of the warm sun. Small they may be but their striking patterns where the black spots have merged to form bold Aztec patterns across their back always deserve a second glance.

Propylea quattuordecimpunctata

The butterflies were everywhere, so many beautiful Brimstone, their soft, glowing primrose yellow wings fluttering over the shrubs and banks of bramble scattered with a few newly opened flowers. Orange Tip and their less striking white with black tip females were almost as prolific, there were good numbers of Speckled Woods once we reached the wooded area where we even spotted a couple of Holly Blues, those tiny jewelled deep blue sapphire winged butterflies which are so easy to miss and so difficult to photograph. Luckily a Common Carpet moth was much more obliging, posing in the sunlight, spreading her wings like a debutante at a ball spreading her skirts for all to admire.

Epirrhoe alternata

So many plants in flower to interest the butterlies – as well as the common bird’s foot trefoil and bird’s eye speedwell in the photograph below, we notice other summer flowers beginning to appear, a striking clump of blue-purple bugle, magenta coloured common vetch as well as the rather duller bush vetch, a few moon daisies opening and carpets of golden buttercups on every stretch of grass. Bright pink red campion alongside white cow parsley, with the Herbs, Robert and Bennet, managing to find space to squeeze in between, to grow and thrive and even a few cowslips in flower, a backward glimpse of the spring now passed.

But the day actually belonged to the spiders. There were hoverflies and honey bees, both red and buff tailed bumble-bees, a sudden appearance of the vividly coloured Red Admiral, but mor than any other species, so many spiders! The beautifully marked Common Crab Spider, conveniently climbing a grass stem so that we could get a full view of the splendid classic column motif embossed on his back.

Xysticus ulmi

Or a female Wolf spider with her blue silk sac containing her eggs attached to spinarets – her stance looking as if she is guarding them as they nestle comfortably in their safe cocoon of silk with her arms clasped around them.

Pardosa sp.

Or a pair of fighting (mating?) spiders of indeterminate species to all intents and purposes attacking each other with a great deal of vigour and determination. Whether this was a defence of territory, fighting over a female or a amorous male importuning a reluctant female we have no idea, and although we watched, mesmerised, for some time, we moved on before we saw the outcome of the bout, so still don’t know whether it was a fight to the death.

We also spotted a male Wolf Spider, lying in wait for likely looking prey, and a Nursery Web Spider, doing his thing, stretching out his long legs in front of him as he bathed happily in the warm sunlight.

The Blackbirds were very evident, their singing loud and piercing, competing with the noise of blustery wind tossing the tree tops where they were perched. We used to love listening to the Nightingales along this path on warm summer afternoons, but I wonder if the song of the Blackbird can be equalled for sheer rich musicality and purity, the real sound of an English summer’s day, as the Swifts and House Martins, Swallows and Skylarks are the sight? None of those birds sighted unfortunately but Chiff Chaff, Chaffinch, Whitethroat, Blackcap, Robin, Wren, Magpie and Crow were all out and about and we did see a dozen or so Rooks and Jackdaws following the plough in the adjoining arable field, but, rather surprisingly, a single Buzzard was the only bird of prey we saw or heard the whole afternoon.

Lots of cyclists, in singles, pairs or gaggles as befits a cycle path, a view conveyed to us when we asked why they didn’t use their bells when approaching bird watchers or photographers obviously absorbed in what they were doing and so unaware of approaching cyclists. We were the only walkers which was unusual, and the traffic contrasted with the winter visitors – when there had been lots of walkers and few cyclists.

30th April 2022

copyright Rebecca Muirhead

When we spotted a photograph of a Dark-edged Beefly on Twitter, we tweeted “Why are there so many this year? They’re everywhere! We see at least 4 or 5 every time we go for a walk when in previous years we were lucky to see 1 or 2 all season.Soldierflies RS tweeted a reply and attached a copy of graphs which were extremely interesting to read:

“We’ve had good numbers of records (and should be more to come in May), but so far total numbers are down this year, which could mean that fewer bee-flies have been active, but could also mean that fewer people are recording this year (charts are for Dark-edged, B. major)”

Below is an up-to-date graph of their records so far this year :

A good reminder not to confuse the local with the entire country!

20th April 2022 / Temp: 17 C / 2.30pm – 4.50pm

Cherry blossom in flower

A glorious afternoon for a walk along the cycle path! Fruit tree blossom in full bloom everywhere we looked – cherry, apple, elm and sloe and butterflies, more than we have seen at this time of the year for years.

Brimstone Butterfly feeding on a Dandelion

11 Brimstone butterflies, so many, the males flashing their clotted cream colours, with strawberry pink spots and the females clothed in very puritan, discreet white, shared the stage with at least 8 Orange tip butterflies where again the males displayed their finery, with a blaze of vivid navel orange coloured epaulettes on each wing while their females remained a modest white, almost Amish in their simplicity against the one single Peacock, showing off her blue blue eyes and scarlet coat with abandon!

Apple tree blossom in bud

The birds were also serenading their females, or defending their territories or possibly both at once at the tops of their little lungs – again in good numbers. 4 Whitethroats with their Five Go Mad in Somerset song, 5 Blackcaps, 2 Chiff-Chaffs, 4 Robins, 2 Wrens, single Blue Tit, Bullfinch and 2 Green Finch with a flock of 20 or more Jackdaws and Rooks forming the chorus to the beautiful, heart wrenching song of the 5 Blackbirds, spaced at decent intervals so that we were able to enjoy their arias all along the path.

Orange Tip Butterfly – copyright John Hanson

More Orange Tip butterflies fluttering past at top speed on a mission to somewhere as we walked slowly, oh so slowly, along the foot of the embankment, carefully examining every Yellow Meadow Ants’ nest, expecting to spot a sunbathing Common Lizard on every one, and drawing a blank on nest-hill after nest-hill. The sunlight was full on the embankment and they should have been enjoying its warmth but not a sign, perhaps we were too late and they were scuttling about, hidden in the thick tussocks of grass, hunting for their tea!

Blackthorn in flower

The Blackthorn was still covered in blossom and still holding nectar if a busy honey bee feeding on a flower, its legs already heavy with pollen from all the flowering fruit trees. It seemed that the Blackthorn attracted the most insects, not only honey and bumble bees, but also hoverflies and even a small brown beetle climbing down a twig just below the bee in the photograph, rather too small to identify.

Beefly – copyright Rebecca Muirhead

What is it with the Beeflies this year? We have never seen so many – everywhere we go, by the river, through the woods or along this path between arable farmland we see Beeflies, not just one or two but like today when we saw 5 in an area when we have never seen any before!

Drinker Moth caterpillar

Life seemed to be bursting out everywhere we looked, as if twitchy from waiting through the long drab winter months, the caterpillars were also impatient to show their best colours – here a Drinker Moth caterpillar, regretfully not quite as showy as it should be, the blue lines on its back almost black in the bleachingly fierce sunlight, but a hairy creature nevertheless with its foxy coloured ruff!

Turning for home the path had a last couple of gifts to give – the sight of two Buzzards wheeling above the tree line, causing every bird to fall silent, or was it the Red Kite flying up to join the hunt which reduced them all to discreet quietude?

A wonderful afternoon, full of the sight and feel of warm sunshine, blue skies, drifting white clouds and during most of the walk at least, the sound of bird song. Perfect!

16th March 2022

Bullfinch copyright John Hansford

More exciting news on the sightings front: after a first confirmed sighting for years of the Reed Bunting by Lynne & Nick Waton, Nathan Slee (Creator of Frome Wildlife Watch) spotted 2 Muntjac and a Barn Owl whilst out running at the Radstock end of the Cycle Path – the first confirmed sighting of either of these species since 2018! He also saw a Bullfinch which seems to be an increasingly unusual sighting along the Cycle Path. Frome Wildlife Watch https://www.facebook.com/groups/243133587257156

We are always so grateful to receive walkers (and runners!) sightings to add to our list giving a much wider picture of the number of species along the path. Here’s our email address is you would like to send us a note of your sightings: dearhumi@gmail.com

14th March 2022 / Temp: 12 C / 2.25pm – 4.15pm

Nursery Web Spider sunbathing amongst Sweet Violets

A glorious afternoon, sunny, warm and decidedly springlike borne out by seeing our first sightings of Sweet Violets this year. We usually spot our first ones in February and were surprised that they should be late this year, but all the more delightful to see them in such numbers. The largest number of clusters are along the embankment but they can be seen in smaller clumps on the grass verges just about everywhere.

Voila odorata var. imberbis  

The white Sweet Violet variety was found to be rather more elusive, but we found one plant in the undergrowth at the back of the orchard which proved to be the variety Voila odorata var. imberbis  which is identified by the pinkish sepal which is discernible (in spite of the out of focus photographs!) looking almost purple.

Voila odorata var. imberbis  

We spotted a few more plants later in our walk but didn’t stop to check which variety. We hope to catch them before the dog violets appear and muddle our possibility of getting a positive identification.

22nd February 2022 / Temp: 11 C / 1.50pm – 3.50pm

Yellow Brain fungus – Tremella mesenterica

Brilliant sunshine combined with a brisk and blustery north-westerly wind made for an invigorating walk along the Way and after the storms of the past week there were lots of fallen branches. Among them was this large twig coated with lichen at the heart of which is a small clump of Yellow Brain fungus, which shrivels and becomes orange in dry weather. This is a parasitic fungus which doesn’t grow on the dead timber but on the crust fungus which feeds on the timber which is invisible, totally obscured by the Yellow Brain fungus.

It’s always astonishing that so many species of lichen and fungus can cluster and thrive on such a small twig.

On arrival, we walked barely a hundred yards before the cawing of Crows made us look up to see not one but four Red Kites gliding around, one of which was being pursued by four or five Crows. A wonderful sight to greet us. As the Kites flew away we walked on and hadn’t gone far before we saw two Buzzards, so the raptors were out in force, searching for prey.

Scarlet Elfcup – Sarcoscypha coccinea

Probably Scarlet Elfcup (or possibly Ruby Elfcup which is so similar I’m not able to tell the difference) but whichever it is its always a welcome sight in winter, such a vivid splash of scarlet in amongst the leaves and moss on the woodland floor.

Hazel catkins

To add to the colour of the day the woodland edge was scattered with lots of hazel trees with their soft butter yellow catkins – here with two trees, one in front of the other.

At this time of the year it is so heartening to see a few plants beginning to flower.

Ground Ivy, Lesser Celandine, Field Speedwell, quite a number of primrose plants dotted about, dandelions, white deadnettle

and even a cow parsley plant not quite in flower but in tight pink buds although we were rather disappointed not the see any signs of violets which we had expected to find. These first flowers, together with the inches high spotted Arum Lily and the Dog’s Mercury plants pushing through reminds us that although it is still only late February, spring is on the horizon.

The appearance of so many raptors above the path probably frightened off the small birds, enough for them to keep hidden in the hedges and trees or maybe it was just the blustery north-westerly wind which kept them away but we saw just a few – Blackbirds, Long-tailed Tits, Robins, Wood Pigeons and Pheasants together with a flock of Jackdaws and Rooks amongst the sheep on an adjoining field, and a couple of handfuls of Gulls flying home to roost.

11th February 2022 / 14.10 – 16.10 hrs

Yellowhammer copyright John Hansford

A lovely email from Nick and Lynne Waton with their list of bird sightings. So exciting that they saw a Reed Bunting – a rare sighting along the cycle path and one we have never been lucky enough to see. John Hansford reported in August 2017 that Reed Bunting and Sedge Warbler had again held territories that year after successfully breeding in the previous two years but we’ve had no confirmed sightings since then.

Extraordinary number of Chaffinches (25!) which Nick said were feasting on the seed someone has scattered along the side of the cycleway by the nature area. A noticeable difference in the numbers in the early part of the afternoon was accounted for by fewer birds when there were too many people going past.

They walked from beyond the entrance to the pipeworks (Mells Old Station) along to Conduit Bridge and back. Great to see the sightings of 3 Yellowhammer and 3 Red Kites.

1410-1500hrs : Blackbird 2 Great tit 2, Blue tit 2, Red Kite 1, Chaffinch 5 & Robin 1

1500- 1540 hrs: Blackbird 1 Buzzard 1, Goldfinch 7 Song Thrush 1 Woodpigeon 5, Wren 1, Yellowhammer 2 Pheasant 2 Reed Bunting 1

1540 – 1610hrs : Chaffinch 25*, Coal tit 1, Great tit 1, House sparrow 2, Pheasant 3, Robin 2, Red Kite 2, Woodpigeon 7, Wren 2, Yellowhammer 1

1st February 2022 / Temp: 11 C / 2.40pm – 4.25pm

Parmotrema perlatum lichen

Intermittent sunshine but a surprisingly icy wind persuaded us to take the path down through the old railway cutting which is well wooded and whose high banks protected us from the wind. But before we reach the cutting we take the top path which is flanked by hawthorn hedges and self seeded hazel. This is always a good hunting site for lichen and it is always exciting to find what we always call Blackstone flower lichen (Parmotrema perlatum) which is used as a spice in Indian cooking. It is so beautiful with its unexpected edges of tan-brown and black hairs.

Maidenhair spleenwort

Down the slope and under the old limestone railway bridge, impossible to pass through without stopping to examine the ferns and moss and lichen covering the stone and we always look for the tiny maidenhair spleenwort, so delicate and frail which manages to cling on and thrive in the cracks between the rocks.

And then into the cutting proper. This path through a towering grove of Ash trees, where numerous badger setts are to be found at the top of the embankments on either side and the slopes, when not scattered with trooping funnel fungi show the clear marks of badger slides, feels like a secret place, so quiet, and rather gloomy – particularly in winter – it is a place to explore for lichen, fungi, autumn crocus, liverworts, mosses, early purple orchids and stinking iris whose bright orange seeds glow from the shadows, and who cannot be charmed by the lacey intricacies of the common liverwort stamped on almost every Ash trunk like a badge of honour?

Dilated Scalewort (Frullania dilatata)

Walking along and catching sight of a Red Kite flying over, hearing the mew of a Buzzard and watching a Blackbird shoot across the path in front of us. Hearing Crows cawing, Gulls screeching, Blue-Tits twittering to accompany a noisy Robin shouting out his song top volume until the ultimate reward – first one and then another beautiful Raven calling a greeting as they pass us by on their way to the hunt – what better way of spending an afternoon in winter than this?

12th January 2022 / Temp: 7.5-5.5 C / 2.15pm – 3.50pm

A perfect winter’s afternoon – crisp clean air, clear blue skies, warm sun on our backs and the moon and the sun in the heavens what more could we ask?

Very busy with lots of cyclists making walking slightly hazardous as not all use their bells to alert us to their presence but thoroughly enjoyable nevertheless. The number of birds along the Way seems to be increasing – we saw several little parties (without bringing their own booze!) of Goldfinches, House Sparrows, Chaffinches and tits dashing from tree to tree as well as Robins and Blackbirds. Mixed flocks of Rooks and Jackdaws seemed unable to settle, constantly flying backwards and fowards across the path, joined on occasion by Crows. The Pheasants in the adjoing field beyond the trees set off a great explosion of noise in response to the detonations from the nearby quarry, which seemed to go on for a considerable time which was quite unusual as they usually just squawk, flutter and subside.

Phyllitis scolopendrium – Hart’s tongue fern

We walked up to the bridge hoping to see the first primroses with their promise of spring but no sign of them this year, but there were several ferns clinging to tiny clefts between the limestone slabs, a lovely hart’s tongue fern and the tiny wall rue fern.

Asplenium ruta-muraria – Wall-rue fern

It’s always intriguing to speculate on the mason’s marks cut into the limestone – somewhere there must be a list of the individual stonemasons and their signature mark – the bridges which carried the railway a tribute to their labours centuries ago.

Hoar frost still clinging to the grasses and leaves on the hedge lined shady side of the path

made a strong contrast to the sun drenched brilliant lime green moss and lichen coated saplings, dried grass and red bramble stems almost obscuring the old railway lines with their slodges of lichen.

1st January 2022 / Temp: 14-13.5 C / 2.30pm – 4.05pm

Rooks and Jackdaws

Evening golden hour, 45 minutes or so before sunset, the Rooks and Jackdaws were flying in, gathering in astonishing numbers, rising and falling in constant movement, a cloud, a confetti, a windy day in autumn causing a scattering of leaves, wonderful sight. Accompanying the scattering birds their kaaa kaa calls and chaka chaka chaka chak chatter, that most evocative of winter sounds, Rooks and Jackdaws gathering together and flying to roost. We stood spellbound as the sky darkened around us, turned blue, reducing the trees and the birds to sillouettes – magical.

Roosting

New Year’s Day – a time of renewal, a greeting of the new year, walking off the Christmas excesses, shaking off the worries and distesses of the second plague year of 2021 and looking forward to the year ahead with a sense of hope for better days to come so the sound and sight of roosting birds takes on an almost mythical status, given the belief that well-established rookeries are deemed to bring good fortune and if the rooks should desert a rookery then a calamity is signalled. Long may they prosper!

Variable oysterling

Lots of walkers out and about in family groups, all very jolly and friendly, quite a number of cyclists but surprisingly few children. Lots to see amongst the trees, a fallen branch sprinkled with tiny, delicate variable oysterling fungus, moss coated tree trunks, and lichen bedecked trees, no signs of roe deer antlers but as they fall off in November, we are perhaps a little late and any shed antlers have already been collected.

Polypody ferns

We love the haphazard tangled self seeded trees almost strangled by ivy and thick old honeysuckle vines where polypodies are growing in profusion, tiny scarlet elf cups are just beginning to push their way into the light, King Alfred’s cakes are clinging to moss covered branches, and where a white unicorn appearing out of the undergrowth wouldn’t seem out of place!

King Alfred’s cakes

We left the wood reluctantly but it was becoming difficult to see the strands of bramble strewn across the deer path and there were still sights to gladden the eye, the delicate feathery seed wings sillouetted against the sky…

Wild clematis

and the beautiful Hoary Rosette lichen spreading in glorious patterns and soft colours across the top of a wooden gate.

Hoary rosette lichen (Physcia aipolia)

In the cold months of winter we need these splashes of colour and life to carry us through to the warmer months of spring but they are everywhere, if we remember to look!

2nd December 2021 / Temp: 5 C / 2.05pm – 3.25pm

Mackerel scales and mare’s tails
Make tall ships carry low sails. 

Not many tall ships along Colliers Way but the mackerel sky as the old rhyme says is a sign of changing weather and mares tails high winds. The high winds had already arrived and the weather system is due to change, the unseasonably cold north-easterlies with their low temperatures albeit bright sunshine, is forecast to warm up to the more usual Atlantic south westerly winds bringing damp, rainy days. Whatever, whether it was the threat of rain or cabin fever, there were lots of walkers out and about and very few cyclists.

One jovial fellow was striding along in shorts with a walking stick and his tan and white spaniel who was hunting along the hedgerows, tail wagging, having a marvellous time. He said it was the first time he had come along the path, he wanted to see where the new tarmac had been laid. We mentioned the new path along the river but he thought there was one near Great Elm. He remembered this path from his childhood in the mid 50s when he and his friends used to catch the train in Frome and travel to Bristol Temple Meads trainspotting, three hours each way!

It was lovely to see so many smililng faces as everyone seemed in high good humour, swapping wildlife sightings and tales of booster jabs. We ran into Lyn and Nick from Midsummer Norton who had seen three male Bullfinches and a small flock of Fieldfares which was such good news as we hadn’t seen any Fieldfares at all this winter and saw our first Redwings earlier in our walk – two good sized flocks, to our great relief.

Lyn and Nick had just returned from a trip to Slimbridge and couldn’t help noticing how few Bewick Swans there were, only 14 this visit and 40 on the last of their summer visits when Slimbridge usually attracts 1-200 hundred. We all noticed the continual steady fall in Swift and House Martin numbers those beloved harbingers of summer, Swifts particularly filling the air with the screaming calls – what a tragedy it would be if we lost them forever.

We also chatted to Keith from Haydon who in spite of a recent recovery from pernicious anemia which needed a three monthly injection of B12 and being nearly 83, walked miles every day to exercise his beautiful collie bitch. He used to garden for an old lady and when he arrived one day to find her dead and her beloved dog whining, he took her to live with him. She was already 13 years of age but beautiful, with a thick healthy coat and an attentive eye, well matched to her new owner. Keith worked first in the local coalfields and then the nearby quarry and has retained his fitness. He was telling us about the Red Kites he sees when, right on cue, a Red Kite appeared in the sky above us, circling in slow majestic circles, his reddish-brown body glowing in the sunlight – quite magnificent!

Red Kite – copyright Rebecca Muirhead

The Red Kite must have drawn a blank because it slowly flew off over the trees and, as if on cue, the small birds began to appear – a Dunnock in the hedgerow, a Chaffinch, a party of Tits dashing along the row of trees, a beautiful Song Thrush standing amongst them. Blackbirds flying backwards and forwards across the path and as the path cleared of people and we walked quietly back towards home, the air was suddenly alive with a small flock of Redwings and as suddenly empty as they disappeared into the trees.

1st December 2021

Greenfinch – copyright: John Hansford

Very distressing to see that two much loved British birds, the Swift and the House Martin have been moved to the Red List because their numbers have more than halved – and fallen by 58% since 1995. The RSPB has also reported that the Greenfinch has moved, shockingly, from the Green List of least concern to the Red List after its population slumped by 62% since 1993 following an outbreak of the disease trichomonosis. The infection spreads through contaminated food and water – sometimes on bird-feeders – and from birds feeding each other regurgitated food during the breeding season. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/dec/01/britain-endangered-birds-red-list-rises-to-70-species

7th November 2021 / Temp: 11 C

Rabbit heaven!! This is might look like an area of railway embankment, neither particularly beautiful nor very interesting but what is possibly not evident from the photograph is the short cropped grass, the rabbit runs, the tunnels through the long grass under the hedges and the rabbit droppings scattered over the entire bank. This stretch is on the list for an extension of the cycle path so it will be interesting to see the effect this has on the rabbit population. At the moment they are undisturbed, their only threat is from circling Buzzards and hunting Foxes, so their reaction to walkers and cyclists is yet to be seen.

Cirsium eriophorum

This is chalk and limestone grassland, evident from the number of spikey Woolly thistle plants – as a wildflower, there are few that can surpass thistles in their value for bees and a wonderful source of nectar for foraging beetles and butterflies as well. We’ve never seen common lizards here but given the number of yellow meadow ants nests beloved by sun bathing lizards it wouldn’t be surprising. What we do see in the summer months are the wonderfully abundant butterflies on the chalk grassland flowers – sad to think we missed this year’s show, but there’s always next year….

There are several contoneaster bushes, low-lying shrubs which come into their own in autumn, covered as they are in bright red berries. A common garden escape on railway embankments they add a brilliant splash of colour at what is often a drab time of the year.

Not many birds about and no sign of the longed for sight of Fieldfares and Redwings which we have yet to see this year. In previous years, as early as October, we have seen flocks of Fieldfares feeding in the fields above the cycle path and flocks of both flying over but unlucky again despite choosing this area which is elevated enough to get a good clear view. Not to be. A few Jackdaws, flocks of Finches, a band of Tits, a Raven, a couple of Crows, the usual Wood Pigeons and a single Magpie. We find it surprising every time we walk in the surrounding countryside, woods, river, lakes and downland to see so few birds and like most country lovers, increasingly worrying.

Treading carefully, avoiding the wet and slippery wooden sleepers, the golden leaves bathing the trees catch the eye – the very last blaze of the year – one we long to hang on to before the dark, dank days of December arrive. The sun was sinking, the light beginning to fade and from deep in the woods beside us we heard the sharp bark of a Fox – not too loud, but several times, evidently Red Foxes do bark in the daytime sometimes, as a warning, a defence of their territory. Time for home and leave the woods and embankment in peaceful enjoyment of what it is, a home for wildlife

And clinging to the cracks in the limestone railway bridge at the end of the path, Wall Rue, the plant which always seems to mimic the Christmas garlands or the decorated pen and ink drawings which we find in old books to separate the paragraphs. It seems to prefer growing in mortar, that mixture of lime and sand and sometimes cement – where did it grow before people built walls I wonder.

2nd November 2021 / Temp: 10.5 C / 2.30pm – 3.50pm

Another glorious golden autumn afternoon, bright sun, clear blue skies overhead with ominous looking dark grey clouds moving slowly towards the sun, chill and crisp air – the perfect day for a brisk walk. We have been blessed with a wonderfully mild autumn – extraordinary to realise that it is November and we still haven’t had the first frost of the season. It is the lack of frost which has kept the leaves yellow without the usual reds and bronzes which some have mourned but when the sunlight transforms them from yellow into gold who could ask for more?

Melanoleuca melaleuca?

Another signal of autumn is fungus – this particular path never gives a good show but we were pleased to spot these – possibly Melanoleuca melaleuca which is evidently a cavalier mushroom and known in America by its common name Bald Knight – for this reason alone we hope this is the correct identification!

Not very much action – few birds, a couple of Ravens, a Buzzard, flocks of Rooks and Jackdaws, lots of noisy Pheasants which have so far escaped the shoot, shouty Robins and a rather subdued Blackbird as well as the usual Crows and Wood Pigeons was our total bird sighting.

The almost total lack of insects was most noticeable – apart from a handful of wasps still busy around the ivy flowers and the occasional flies on the hogweed, there was nothing to see. We remember when we saw the results of the timed Pollinator Count last year how while buddleia had 10 insects per count, ivy flowers had 31! Astonishing. Although perhaps it is worth remembering that when the ivy is in flower there are very few other flowers blooming.

Dicranoweisia cirrata, Common Pin Cushion moss

If there is a dearth of insects and flowers, it is this is the time of the year when we notice the mosses and lichens and appreciate their beauty all over again. We often see pin cushion moss on fence posts, trees and even clinging to the stone bridges and its often such a vivid emerald green it catches the eye.

Lots of lichens festooning the tree branches too, even a few on this elder shrub, garlanded with black bryony berries, and sporting a few clumps of pin cushion moss as well – none of them noticeable when the bush is in full leaf.

The path was quiet and peaceful in the late afternoon sunlight but as the threatening clouds obscured the sun we realised that it was quite chilly and time to head home. Very few cyclists which was surprising and for the first time for months there were more walkers than cyclists – all cheerful and chatty and moving towards elderly, a clear signal that school half-term must have ended!

21st October 2021 / Temp: 11 – 13.5 C / 2.40pm – 4.50pm

Hawthorn berries with yellow scale lichen coated branches

A beautiful autumn afternoon, sunny, crisp and clear and the tree lined path was perfectly positioned to offer shelter from the northerly wind. We came across Andrew Marchant and a colleague from Frome’s Missing Links’ Ecology Group hard at work on the autumn cut of the grass and plants at the orchard, not only to allow the wild flower seeds space to germinate but to use the cuttings to add to the alredy formed dead hedge. Dead hedges are so good for wildlife – especially for small mammals like bank voles, grass snakes and birds – providing somewhere to shelter that is protection from predators and the worst of the winter cold.

It was good to catch up with their news on the extension of the cycle path above the embankment, a wonderful mini-chalk downland which is always full of butterflies in the summer. [For full report see W I L D W A Y ROUTE 24]

Andrew has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the pathway and it was fascinating to learn of the results of their amphibian survey and also that on the last bat survey under the railway tunnel, they found 18 species of bats!

We chatted about common lizards which are prolific along the path verges and particularly on the embankment. He talked about their many different colours, and how when they are born the baby lizards are red at the front and black at the back. We have never seen any with that particular combination, we often see sooty black juveniles, even one black lizard with a black shiny stub – the remains when it sheds its tail – as well as myriad shades of tan, sand, brown and even green lizards, but never red – we shall have to look out for them. Juveniles are the easiest to identify while yearlings and adults are more difficult to separate except for size. (Lizards usually take 2-3 years to reach full adulthood).

Marmalade Hoverfly

Still a few insects about, a Marmalade hoverfly, drone flies, wasps, a Common Green Shieldbug soaking up the sun, a Noon fly, gnats and midges, although we didn’t spot a single spider.

October is the fungus and lichen season and it’s always fun to check the fence posts where there are often a surprisng number of lichens festooning the tops. They form miniature gardens of minute growths with wonderful names like Devil’s matchsticks, Chewing Gum lichen or a particular favourite of mine – Fanfare of Trumpets!

The top of this post was coated with snowy mountain peaks of crustose lichen, possibly Bitter Wart (an equally exotic name), so called from its taste – if you wet a finger and wipe it across the surface and then lick it – if it’s Bitter Wart it will taste… well… bitter! Growing happily on the same space is one of the fruticose Cladonia species of lichen, possibly Common Powder Horn but I can’t be sure.

Common Melilot

Still a few scattered wild flowers lingering on, we spotted common melilot, knapweed, white dead nettle, hawkwee, even the occasional purple scabious but the leaves are turning, old mans beard and skeins of black bryony berries are covering the trees and hedges and bird song is dwindling. Autumn is here signalled by the insistent Robins yell out from their territories all along trees and hedges bordering the path, the Pheasants bred by the nearby shooting estate noisily squawking from the ploughed fields, flocks of chattering Jackdaws and Rooks passing overhead, a mewing Buzzard the call of the Raven… and when autumn is here, winter is looming on the horizon!

Willow Gall (Euura pedunculi)

While searching for insects we spotted a couple of willow gall sawfly on the low leaves of a Goat Willow tree. We often see the Redgall Sawfly pupa (Pontania proxima) on the trees along the river.

As yet no sign or sound of Redwings or Fieldfares that we have seen, but they will come soon – their arrival signalling the turning of the year in the same way the arrival of the Swallows signals spring. Well, the hips and haws are fat and ripe so they should enjoy a good feast when they do arrive – we can’t wait!

BIG BUTTERFLY COUNT 2021 results:

A very concerning result of this year’s Butterfly Count showing the lowest ever number ever recorded, however this was not unexpected. We noticed that numbers appeared to be considerably lower this year and put it down to unseasonably cold and rainy weather at crucial times during the spring and summer. We all hope this year was just a glitch and next year, after a warm and sunny autumn, will be a bumper year.

https://butterfly-conservation.org/news-and-blog/big-butterfly-count-2021-sees-lowest-ever-number-of-butterflies-recorded?

1st October 2021

Well this is rather exciting! A note from Nicholas and Lynne (who spotted the butterfly orchids [U] earlier in the year) reporting spotting a Ring Ouzel** mid-afternoon back in May, on the stretch of the cycle path from Jericho to Conduit Bridges! Nicholas writes: Unfortunately, I missed that Ring Ouzel as I was looking in the opposite direction but Lynne confirmed it from our bird books and when one was featured on Countryfile the following Sunday.” The excitement of these rare sightings cannot be over-emphasised and stay in the memory for years. Lucky Lynne!

** Red List

Here is a link to the Ring Ouzel Study Group with lots of fascinating information about this rare bird and latest sights. Needless to say that this is a first sighting we know of a Ring Ouzel on Colliers Way! http://www.ringouzel.info/

Email update : “We walked down that way today, sightings including red kite, 4 swallows and a jay but saw no ring ouzels, suitcases packed, heading south“.

The pleasure in receiving sightings from other walkers is the added records – all on the same day and all different – but, here’s a few notes on our walk and what we did see!

1st October 2021 / Temp: 15-16 C / 3pm – 4.40pm

Common Buzzard c. Rebecca Muirhead

A beautiful afternoon, warm and brilliantly sunny, with a playful autumn wind, the perfect day for a walk, a feeling obviously shared by lots of other walkers. How enjoyable it is to meet others, swap stories of previous as well as the day’s sightings and share the pleasure we all feel in this traffic free wildlife corridor. It was good to see a lovely couple we occasionally meet walking in Witham Park Woods who had managed to spot not only a Red Kite and a Buzzard but also a Red Admiral, a Comma butterfly and rather surprisingly a Lizard. They shared our fascination with lizards and told us they spot them not only on the embankment where the main colony seem to congregate but all along both sides of the path. On one memorable day at the end of August they counted 25 in one walk – a new record!

Common European Earwig

Despite the sun warming the leaves, apart from hoverflies and other flies, we noticed few insects although we did spot a couple of Earwigs tucked up together under a leaf, this one looks like a female (the males hooks are much more curved) and we were particularly taken with the patterns on her back which looked like a barista had etched them, so like the patterns in a cup of cappucino!

Four Jackdaws flying over, a Robin singing loudly from a nearby bush, squawking Pheasants a Blackbird, Crows and Wood Pigeons – so not a bumper day for birds either, but the afternoon was warm, the hawthorn berries and rosehips were beautifully ripe awaiting the Redwings and Fieldfares and everyone we met was smiling and glad to be out and about.

Dark Bush Cricket

We spotted several Dark Bush Crickets, always counter-intuitive, as we never expect to see them beyond the summer although we are aware they often survive until winter. About to cross the path to a thicket which sometimes reveals unusual insects we saw what turned out to be the Estate Gamekeeper heading in the same direction and stopped for a chat. Another “bird man” he talked about Peregrin Falcons and pointed out the dead tree in the hedge where a couple of weeks ago he had seen a pair perched for quite a period eyeing the fields. He has seen them several times, flying over from above the ridge, and we both hoped they might nest close by.

As expected he was a mine of information on the local wildlife – he talked about the explosion in numbers of Brown Hares this year, mirrored by other gamekeepers and farmers he chats to, as far as Longbridge Deverill and the downs of Cold Kitchen Hill. These are the areas where Hare coursing with dogs (which is of course is illegal), is most prevelant and is of greatest concern. He ensures all his gates into the fields are kept padlocked but he has to be ever vigilant.

We chatted about Lapwings, a favourite bird of his, and although he sees a fair number over the winter he mourned the loss of the flocks of nesting birds which he used to see but which no longer breed in the area. It’s true that the last large flock we saw was as long ago as 2018 feeding in the fields below Conduit Bridge but in the past winters we haven’t seen any.

He mentioned the problem some shooting estates have been having as they are unable to import the chicks from France and said that it wasn’t a problem for his estate whose birds are bred locally and have never imported. He was excited at a new initiative which they are trying for the first time this year, breeding 50 Grey Partridges** (Red Listed birds, sometimes known as the English Partridge) which they hope to introduce. He doesn’t know if they will survive, they were released into the wild last week and he hasn’t had a sight of them since but it would be wonderful if the Grey Partridge could be re-introduced into this area of the English countryside.

We also chatted about the gamekeeper’s life, which is his case was following in his father’s footsteps (who was the Gamekeeper on the Ammerdown estate), he enthused about his enjoyment of winter, the crisp frost hardened ground, walking through the fields and woods at night with all the night sounds of barking muntjak, calling owls, barking dog foxes and shrieking vixens, and the explosion of noise at a disturbed pheasant – which I thought would be likely to frighten me to death but that he enjoys as proof that the wildlife is around and thriving.

15th September 2021 / Temp: the 19.5 C / 2.20pm – 4.40pm

What an utterly glorious, wonderfully warm afternoon! How marvellous it seemed to feel to unclench muscles as we felt the hot sun on our backs, looking around and seeing ladybirds (all 7-spot), hoverflies and bees! With temperatures more often seen in July (although not this year) walking along the cycle path protected from the north-easterly wind, we noted the fully ripened hawthorn berries with some bewilderment – this can’t be September!

Common Dronefly (Eristalis tenax)

We counted thirteen Small White butterflies three Speckled Wood and two Small Tortoiseshell, a number of hoverflies, including this “footballer” – our first sighting of this easily identifiable hoverfly this year.

The Footballer Hoverfly (Helophilus pendulus)

Yet another sighting of a Bloody-nosed beetle, they seem to be prolific this year, more Scorpion flies, LOTS of spiders, just about everywhere including several Nursery Web spiders like this one, not only basking in the sunshine on leaves but even on flower heads!

Nursery Web Spider (Pisaura mirabilis)

Although there were a number of insects, the further we walked the more noticeable it became that numbers appeared lower than in previous years, an impression borne out by reports from UK Hoverflies and Butterfly Conservation, the cold spring and wet summer believed at present to be the cause.

We also seem to see far less birds than in previous years. We saw three Ravens and two Buzzards, heard a Bullfinch and saw a couple of Pheasants, Wood Pigeons of course and a few Crows. Not exactly a bonanza of birdlife – possibly the fewer insects may have contributed to the fall in numbers.

Hairy Shieldbug or Sloe Bug (Dolycois baccarum)

Always cheering to see shieldbugs of any description they are so colourful and intricately marked and this bug, still wearing its summer colours, is a particularly welcome reminder that it may be the last gasp but summer is still lingering.

Dock Bug Nymph (Coreus marginatus)

Dock bugs (which always make me think of lutes or the extravagantly fat ties which fashionable young men liked to wear!) are also striking – particularly as in this case where they position themselves on a contrasting coloured pock marked leaf, no doubt hoping to encourage a mate.

Hoverfly (Eristalis – possibly nemorum)

More hoverflies along the embankment – possibly the most carefully studied area of the entire stretch of the path where we walk. We creep along at snails pace from one yellow meadow anthill to the next searching for lizards. They are so small, our eyesight is so bad that we are are lucky to see one at all, but we are patient and when there seems no signs of life, we whistle, and sometimes we are lucky. Today, just as we were giving up hope, we caught sight of the body and unmistakeable back legs of a common lizard! Not a ground-breaking, shout it from the rooftops find, but that always depends on who’s looking – for us a definite red letter day!!

5th September 2021

Good News from Frome’s Missing Links on the long awaited extension of Colliers Way into the heart of Frome, enabling a traffic-free route from the centre of the town to the city of Bath. What a delightful prospect!

Part of the missing ‘link’ between Great Elm and Frome will run alongside a railway that is still in use (for quarry materials), and after several years of lobbying, there is now an agreement with Network Rail to allow our path to take this route. We will have to meet certain conditions and standards of construction, but it is a huge boost to have the permission to move forward on this.

30th August 2021 / Temp: 14.5 C / Afternoon

Celebrating a birthday rather too energetically over the weekend made us reluctant to move but a quiet amble in the fresh air was an enticing idea not to be missed and the cycle path a perfect choice, protected as it is from the unseasonably chilly and blustery north easterly wind.

How pleased we were to have made the effort. Cool yes, cloudy yes, but intermittently the clouds parted revealing blue skies and the sun which lit up the day and amble we did! The local wildlife also seemed reluctant to get up and fly about – a handful of bees, a few hoverflies and two scorpion flies seemed the only insects bothering to move. Banded snails made a good showing, yellow ones, amber ones and the lovely humbug-mimic burnt toffee and white striped snails clung to leaves and plants stems – probably snoozing…

Bloody-nosed Beetle

We knew autumn was coming by the number of harvestmen, those long-legged spider-like creatures which make crane flies look stable! What surprised us was the Bloody-nosed beetles – possibly not the first, but the second and then the third, all perched on low leaves well-spaced out along a 50 metre or so stretch. They are so lovely with their violet sheen and corkscrew legs and their calm acceptance of clicking cameras and clustered fans – surely the divas of the insect world.

22-spot Ladybird

We spotted this tiny, tiny Ladybird happily feeding on a hawthorn leaf while sitting on one of the oak benches, catching the scent of a bonfire on the wind, glorying in the peace disturbed only by the rustle of leaves and soaking up the sun and the squawk of the young pheasants fattening up on the fallen grain in the recently harvested field. These have been bred by the shooting estate close by and as the Pheasant season begins on the 1st of October it’s good to see them enjoying the sunshine and bumper feast with no thought of the fate which is probably awaiting them.

Pheasants and ripening golden apples splashed and flecked with red, circling Buzzards – an adult and a juvenile – Chaffinches, Goldfinches and the occasional Blackbird together with the chilly wind and an embankment choked with fading rose-bay willow herb, yarrow, the last of the scabious, hawthorn berries turning and old man’s beard cloaking both the bramble bushes and saplings all intimations of autumn – we can’t ignore the fact that summer really is coming to an end soon… but of please – not yet!!

16th August 2021 / Temp: 16.5 C / 9.55 am – 11.45am

Sad to see one of the first views which greeted us on the path was the sight of a wych elm tree split down the division of its trunk, halving the canopy. Some half a mile further down the path we saw another wych elm, split in almost the same way, its split trunk and branches lying across the path. Storm Evert on the night of the 29th-30th July may well have been the cause – winds of up to 65 mph after days of heavy rain and thunder storms which followed fast on a sudden heat-wave may have proved too much for the trees to cope with, particularly elms which are subject to splitting like “breaking a wish bone”. The tree will probably survive but the classic shape has been sadly lost forever.

Painted Lady

The wind from the north west was fairly strong today, enough to deter many butterflies, but there was a good scattering of species, Red Admirals, Gatekeepers, Green Veined Whites, Commas, Common Blues, Small Tortoiseshells and a Painted Lady most feeding on the buddleia flowers but the latter two soaking up the latent warmth of a sleeping stone.

Small Tortoiseshell

Reaching the embankment we clambered pretty unsteadily up to the top, following two seperate deer tracks some 30 yards apart trying to find the large path of yellow rattle planting we photographed a couple of years ago. Memory is uncertain and we may have chosen the wrong path but we could find no signs of them. The whole of the top of the bank is now so thickly overgrown it could be that the ground was too choked for the rattle seeds to germinate. On our next visit we will try another path – they must be up there somewhere!!

Yellow Rattle in seed on the embankment July 2019

The top of the embankment is level, the old rails, pitted with rust, are still embedded in the ground, grown over with bright yellow leafy hawkweed, white yarrow, yellow balls of hop trefoil, and clumps of the wonderfully delicate pale toadflax which although uncommon elsewhere is always plentiful along old disused railway tracks and tangles of rose briars and bramble laid out to trip the unwary. What fun it would have been to camp out up there, watching the moths and bats and owls appear and watch the recent perseid shower scatter meteorites across the sky!

Garden Spider

Two Buzzards, a gaggle of gulls, a couple of Ravens, a party of 6 or 7 Goldfinches, 3 young Blackbirds and of course the ubiquitous Crows, Pheasants and Wood Pigeons were the sum of birdlife sighted, possibly most were sheltering from the gusty north westerly wind. That may also have been true of cyclists, many times fewer than we have been used to seeing recently and those who passed us very courteous and considerate.

Tortoise Shieldbug – final instar nymph

But the small creatures were much more in evidence, all hunkered down among the thick grasses – a Dark Bush cricket basking, a crab spider clinging to a scabious flower, froghoppers and shieldbugs resting on leaves….

Common Froghopper

several ladybirds (mostly 7 spot) dotted about, a tortoise shield bug as well as bees, wasps and hoverflies and, joy unbounded, two tiny common lizards almost hidden in the grass on top of the yellow ants nests – what a relief, they are still there!!

Common Lizard

Resting on one of the oak benches, checking the field in front of us for wild brown hares and raptors circling the trees, we were accosted by couple on distinctive Babbington House bicycles stopping to confirm that they were on the right track to the village of Mells. We assured them they were and recommended both the Post Office cafe and our beloved Walled Garden plant cafe as well as the friendly Talbot Inn, a wide choice for such a small area in what is surely one of the prettiest villages in Britain.

26th July 2021 / Temp: 24 C / 1.50pm – 4.40pm

The temperature was not particularly high but the sun was burning enough for us to choose the shady side of the path as we walked, admire the wild roses garlanding the hedgerow from a distance and be glad of the occasional fresh breeze.

Small Skipper feeding on newly opening Yarrow

The wild flowers carpeting the grassland were an absolute delight but the afternoon belonged to the butterflies – there were so many we began to lose count! We can’t remember seeing so many Small Skippers particularly when we think back to a few years ago when we were lucky to see one or two – today we saw 16 plus and they were everywhere.

Meadow Brown (likely)

Meadow Browns made a good showing (including the one above which looks as if it survived a bird attack, with only its “eyes” missing), at 13, Small Whites 18, only 2 Ringlets and 3 Brimstones and only 1 Red Admiral. However 11 Peacocks took the prize for us, it was such a joy to see them all over the buddleia and at least five on one teasel plant, towering over the surrounding shrubs and challenging the neighbouring hawthorns.

Peacock Butterfly feeding on teasel

We walked to the mini-meadow as we had promised ourselves on our last visit and it was just heaven to pick our way across the massed white wild carrot and yarrow, bright blue meadow cranesbill, vivid purple knapweed, pale and beautiful scabious, bright yellow St John’s wort and ragwort and clumps of birds eye trefoil, trying to avoid stepping on unwary grasshoppers who leapt at every step, searching for the bumblebees, honey bees, hover flies, red soldier beetles and of course butterflies.

Small Skipper feeding on Wild Basil

No scarce moths today and regretfully it would take a better and more accomplished photographer than me to be able to capture the full glory of the mini-meadow but hopefully these few snaps will be able to convey a small idea of the bounty sunshine, warmth and an old, abandoned railway line, left untended and neglected by agriculture or people alike for over 50 years can provide.

The sun was so hot we took rests in the shade of a large hawthorn bush entangled with bramble, lulled by the drone of the dozens and dozens of bees feasting on the flowers. It was while sitting on our stools, using our binoculars rather than our weary legs, that one of us spotted the best prize of the day – a Hawfinch!!! Although other bird watchers had long reported their presence along the cycle path, we had never seen one before but there it was in all its glory of distinctive wing markings, looking for all the world like a Chaffinch on steroids! What joy!

Hawfinch / copyright The Wildlife Trust

We watched a pair of Buzzards circling above the trees, listened to the wonderful call of a couple of Raven calling to each other and spotted one of them flying across, a Crow and a Robin and of course those dratted Wood Pigeons seemed the only birds about. But when we walked back along the path we saw parties of House Martins and Swallows, five, ten, twenty and then lost count, deeming it more enjoyable just to watch the swoop and dive of these wonderful birds than waste time trying to count them.

Drone fly, Eristalis arbustorum, feeding on Yarrow

We had a chat with Angela from Midsummer Norton who had walked along to the large buddleia where the best sightings for Peacocks, Commas and Red Admirals are to be found and we were delighted to hear that she had over the past week or ten days seen about 10 Silver Washed Fritillaries! These butterflies we used to see in great numbers in earlier years before the “Big Slash” of the undergrowth and we were so pleased to see their return, even in these hugely diminished numbers.

Evening Primsrose

Regretfully another summer without any sign or sound of Nightingales – a summer treat which it seems never to be heard again, but we mustn’t spend too much time longing for what is past, rather celebrate that there is still so much to enjoy.

14th July 2021

Comma / copyright John Hansford

A message from John Hansford with a list of his butterfly sightings which make extremely interesting reading. He was walking from the opposite end of the path to us and what is most remarkable is his totally different list of species to the ones we saw and the sheer number of Marbled White and Large Skipper!

Marbled White / copyright John Hansford

Cycle path today, 1 Lizard on the path at the entrance to the cycle path near the pipeworks. 20+ Marbled White 12+ Large Skipper 3 Small Skipper 2 Red Admiral 1 Gatekeeper 1 Speckled Wood and 5 Comma.

Large Skipper / copyright John Hansford

Our list: No Lizard although we looked carefully all along the embankment, no Red Admiral, no Gatekeeper, no Speckled Wood but 2 Meadow Brown, 2 Small Copper, 7 Ringlet and 6 Small White. So the combined species list is now 11 which although not huge, is a bit more respectable

14th July 2021 / Temp: 19 C / 10.35am -12.50pm

Brassy long-horn moth Nemophora metallica : Nat. Scarce B

A fine, sunny morning with flying fair weather clouds, masses of flowers, although the undergrowth looked rather sodden from yesterday’s torrential downpour. At first we saw few butterflies which was disappointing but as we walked farther down the path and the sun grew hotter more and more ventured out and in the wide flower filled mini meadow we caught sight of this rather beautiful moth – a new species to us along Colliers Way.

The most noticeable species were the number of hoverflies which seemed to be at work on almost every flower head and although they were joined but a fair number of bees, hoverflies held sway over the grassland thick with flowers.

But when the butterflies began to appear, we spotted a few species 4 Marbled White, 6 Small White, 3 Comma, 7 Ringlet, 2 Meadow Brown, 2 Small Copper but due maybe to the recent rain and pretty chilly days, the numbers were down on last year which was possibly the result of that gloriously warm spring. However the rain brought out lots of snails, they were everywhere, including this rather beautiful pale yellow white-lipped snail coming out of its shell.

White-lipped Snail Cepaea hortensis

The birdlife was quiet although we did see or hear Magpie, Pied Wagtail, Yellowhammer, Whitethroat, Song Thrush, Blackbird, Wrens and a particularly welcome sight – a pair of Ravens with juvenile chattering to each other as they circled a couple of times before flying off.

mini wildflower meadow

When we have a little more time we must just head straight for this wild area which at this time of the year is thick with flowers so a haven for insects, particularly grasshoppers and crickets. We have promised ourselves a sunny afternoon perched on a stool, sitting still and quiet and waiting to see what turns up – we are quite certain there are treasures to be found – if not nationally scarce species but ones we don’t see in our walk past.

Knotgrass leaf beetle Chrysolina polita

On the walk back along the path we spotted this rather handsome beetle and on the embankment more and more labyrinth spiders have created their tunnels amongst the thick long grass and you can almost see the spider in this one, crouched skulking near the entrance, no doubt hoping for a passing grasshopper or cricket on which they feed or possibly a male coming a’courting as it’s now mating time for labyrinths.

Labyrinth Spider Agelena labyrinthica

30th June 2021 / Temp: 20 C / 2.30pm – 4.50pm

Pale Toadflax

Hazy sunshine but when the sky cleared, the sun was hot and burning. The waving grasses with their silken seeds gently swaying in the light breeze and their companion umbellifers were taller than us (more than 6 feet) the meadow cranesbill, wood spurge and moon daisies were waist high and the common birds foot trefoil, centaury, red and white clover and doves foot carpeted the ground, a dense mass of burgeoning plantlife, bursting with growth, thick with flowers.

Large Skipper

As we walked along the path, delighting in both the pink and the white wild roses clambering through the trees and over the shrubs, entangled with the clotted cream flowers of black bryony and their delicate green tendrils, we noticed the beautiful delicate pale toadflax next to mauve scabious, purple knapweed, the large spikes of pink sainfoin, known as holy hay, intermingled with large clumps of hedge bedstraw while the ground was covered with yellow creeping cinquefoil.

Speckled Wood butterfly

With such a plethora of flowers it is not surprising that we also saw at least a dozen Ringlet, Speckled Woods, Small Heaths, one Large Skipper, Meadow Browns, Marbled White and Small Tortoiseshell butterflies, the best display we have seen all summer.

Buff-tailed Bumblebee feeding on Scabious

In the trees we saw and heard a Yellowhammer, Goldfinches, Chiff Chaffs, Blackbirds, Chaffinches, a single Song Thrush, a party of Wrens, Whitethroat, Buzzards, Crows, Pheasants and of course Wood Pigeons.

Bonking Common Red Soldier Beetles (right) Swollen thighed flower Beetle (left)

But what was was surprising was the extraordinary number of insects – Marmalade hoverflies, Buff-tailed Bumblebees, mating woundwort shieldbugs, a spiked shieldbug, bonking tawny red soldier beetles, ladybirds – both adult and larva, a scorpion fly, lots of meadow grasshoppers and dark bush crickets with their unbelievably long antennae.

Dark Bush Cricket
Mating Woundwort Shieldbugs

We spotted Common Lizards almost hidden in between the grasses on the top of four of the well spaced yellow meadow ant-hills, several of which were bare earth and half broken down – probably by hungry green woodpeckers, a burnet moth, a tiny scarlet shiny beetle scurrying about his business and dozens of little red spider mites dashing all over the sun baked limestone of the bridge.

There were spiders seemingly everywhere, stretched out across the leaves of brambles basking in the sun like sunbathers on the beach – Wolf spiders, Nursery web spiders and several new species we had never seen before and which, despite our very best endeavours, we were unable to identify.

Nursery Web Spider

This is high summer on a short stretch of flower and grass bordered path running through the Somerset countryside – something to treasure and celebrate at any time but made doubly precious in this weary time with a seemingly relentless pandemic is stalking the world.

16th June 2021 / Temp: 23.5 C / 2.35pm – 4.25pm

A combination of indifferent weather and other commitments have delayed a walk along the path for some time so we missed the first flush of summer, but days away from the longest day, these are the high summer days of wild field roses, climbing tendrils of white and black bryony, and embankments of thick tangles of flowering plants and seeding grasses, umbellifers filling every spare inch of grass verge and path edge, all together creating one of the most delightful sights of summer.

After days of soaring temperatures, the air was hot and heavy, and the high humidity and high cloud may have contributed to what appeared to be an alarming lack of butterflies. Less than a handful of Brimstones, a few Whites and just two Small Tortoiseshells was the sum total of our butterfly count – not the usual numbers we had been expecting. The brambles have almost finished flowering, so no deep hum of bees, and although we heard a Yellowhammer here for the first time in years, there were few birds – Whitethroat, Blackbird, Song Thrush, Chiff Chaff, Magpie, Wren, Robin, all of whom seemed pretty lethargic and reluctant to move, most only recognised from their songs.

However, although the common lizards on the embankment were shy and mostly skulking deep in the thick tangle of rough grass, we did see one basking in the sunshine and another skittering away at top speed so we know they are about. What bees and hoverflies there were (we only saw only a couple of dozen in all) were enjoying the hogweed, that prince amongst insect feeding plants and where we spotted a female Common Tubetail hoverfly below, a species new to us.

We always ask other walkers what they have seen and they tell us of wildlife spotted – birds, roe deer, wild boar, hares and sometimes treasures or rareties which we have missed, so when a couple of walkers from Holcombe were passing, we asked and were particularly excited to hear that they had sighted two bee orchids amongst a scatter of ten pyramidal orchids along the side of the path beyond the derelict guards van towards Kilmersdon. The only bee orchids we have seen or even knew of here were those planted recently in the orchard by the Great Elm entrance, so this is a very welcome sighting. The lovely photograph of this exquisite flower, perfectly displaying its fat bumblebee centre has been kindly sent to us by Kate.

copyright – K Rosetti-Hughes

In the places where we often see early purple orchids, pyramidal orchids and twayblades, under the trees along the cutting or in the scrubby wood, there were never any sign of bee orchids. The ghost of the greater butterfly orchids, long since mown down, which were so beloved of an elderly couple from Mells still linger in the memory, so maybe this sighting is the first intimation, the possible beginning of a resurgence of all those native orchids – what a lovely thought!

Bee orchids might be a rarity but come the summer come the scabious, and with the scabious comes the rather more common burnet moths! Always so wonderfully colourful and busy. Their species identification usually evades us – so this maybe a narrow-bordered 5 spot, a 5 spot or a 6 spot – but one thing we are certain of – it is most definitely a burnet moth!

There were a few swollen-thighed flower beetles and hoverflies around and in the flowers, a very common mirid bug (Grypocoris stysi) and a good number of flies, those trusted pollinators when others are scarce.

The first labyrinth spiders’ webs have appeared in the rough grass, a wolf spider with her egg sac sat in a buttercup flower head and we even spotted everyone’s favourite – a crab spider – which, catching a hoverfly unaware, was enjoying her mid-afternoon snack.

Our rather weary tramp towards home, with the promise of tea the only thought urging us on, was enlivened by a soaring, circling Buzzard, high in the sky above us, mewing and calling and probably hoping to frighten a scampering small mammal into providing him with a tasty morsel too.

Few birds, few butterflies, a lull in the year, but masses and masses of flowers, including meadow cranesbill, moon daisies, dogwood, elderflower, hedge woundwort, creeping cinquefoil, red campion, cow parsley, hedge bedstraw, bush vetch, birdsfoot trefoil, scabious, buttercups, all intertwined and tangled with heavily seeded waving grasses, wild angelica and tall, stately hogweed in wild, untrammelled abundance, with the thistles and buddleia still to come. This area forms a small narrow corridor of vibrant life in sharp contrast to the green desert of arable crops through which it travels, where no birds sing and no butterflies or insects are ever found – this path may seem quiet but if we could hear it, we would know how it’s quietly buzzing with hidden life, a genuine haven for wildlife.

26th May 2021 / Temp: 16 C / 3.25pm – 5.55 pm

After an injured foot, an extremely cold and dry April and an extremely cold and wet May, we managed the first trip along Colliers Way for nearly a month. How wonderful! The hawthorn trees were thick with May blossom, the grass verges billowing with frothy cow parsley and the sun shone – what more could one ask?

With foot slowly healing, progress was slow which suited our mood perfectly. We ambled and dawdled and looked and gazed – drank in the warmth of the sun and the blue of the sky as we watched the beautiful Brimstone Butterflies with their delicate clotted cream colouring fluttering among the grasses and over the trees.

If you walked with your eyes shut you would know you were close to the flowering hawthorns, first by the smell of the blossom which is liked by some and loathed by others – whichever, it is very strong and secondly by the loud drone of dozens of bees feeding on the flowers.

Flowers everywhere, birdseye speed well and bush vetch above, as well as hawkweed, moon daisy, birds foot trefoil, cowslips, wood spurge, red clover, ribstone plantain, meadow buttercups, herb robert, dandelions, dove’s foot cranesbill, red campion, garlic mustard, white dead nettle, hop trefoil, stitchwort, field forget-me-not, herb bennet and mile after mile of cow parsley!

So we sat among the grasses and yellow meadow anthills on the embankment and soaked up the sun listening to the sweet song of the Blackbird and Willow Warbler, Chaffinch and Robin, watching the Buzzard lazily wheeling overhead while observing in a pretty desultory fashion that there were no lizards to share the bank with nor any other butterflies other than more and more Brimstones.

If there was a lack of butterfly species, other insects, spiders and snails made up for it.

A beautiful Cucumber green orb spider looked very content nestling in the stem of a stinging nettle (a new species for us) while it was good to see so many cheerfully bright 7 spot ladybirds, a real sign of summer when they appear in large numbers, settled on nettles, plant and tree leaves all along the path.

It’s a little difficult to be sure but we think this is a white-lipped snail one of so many clinging to the stems of plants, all different colours, the yellow ones being particularly striking. We also saw several brown garden snails and this rather lovely Short Spire snail below. Our poor photograph really doesn’t do it justice – the contrasting colours of the deep rose pink surround and pale grey spiral is certainly eye catching and lovely to see.

Lots of leaf beetles, a well-named tortoise beetle – (round and domed) with its distinctive red/brown marking down its back – also new to us, a tiny black shiny mustard beetle.

We ambled along to the bench overlooking the half-grown green wheat fields, restful but rather sad with their total absence of any life at all – no birds, or butterflies, no insects or snails, nothing but acre after acre of pristine green plants, so we turned around on the seat and looked at the grasses, trees and hedges, feeling the sun on our backs and watched a Nomad bee whizz past,

listened to the Pheasants squawking to each other, the Magpies cackle, the Wood Pigeons cooing, the Crows cawing and the continuous chifff chaff, chiff chaff of the Chiff Chaff!!

We decided it really was time we bestirred ourselves and moved from the comfort of the oak bench – we were supposed to be taking exercise after all, so we reluctantly got up and began what began to appear to be the long trek home. Checking the undergrowth on the shadier side of the track, we found this creature clinging to a plant stem in the one patch of sunlight. Back at the house it took us hours of flipping through books, examining pages and pages of internet sites until just about to give up we found the identification we had been searching for – it was a Bloody-nosed beetle larva! We have seen these rather striking beetles occasionally over the years but never the larva which surprisingly only feeds on bedstraw (a good deal of both hedge and ladies bedstraw plants litter the sides of the path).

Our last sighting – a Common Nettle-tap moth was rather easier to identify – mainly because it was sunning itself on a leaf in a large nettle bed!

We were nearing the end of the path, and my husband walked on while I checked yet another plant where the first swollen thighed beetle we had seen this year was making his unsteady way across a leaf when a couple, Amanda and Stephen, who had cycled over from Midsummer Norton, stopped to ask if I could help them with an identification of a plant they had seen. Unfortunately, my husband is the plant and bird man, so although I had an idea which they meant, I couldn’t remember the name – crosswort – so will never know if that was it. We chatted about the number of flowers in bloom and how Amanda loved the cow parsley – it is certainly lovely but why are they so totally bereft of insects when the hogweed which is due to flower in a couple of weeks is usually swamped with beetles, hoverflies, wasps, bees and even ants!

They had enjoyed the most wonderful ride and spotted a couple of Orange Tip butterflies as well as a Common Blue at the other end of the path. They talked about how much they loved cycling along Colliers Way and how beautiful the trees, grassy verges and flowers were alongside the track. This is what May should be – warm and sunny, blue skies and blossom, flower filled grassland and blue, blue skies!

11th May 2021

This rather striking hoverfly (sometimes known as Barred Ant-hill hoverfly) has been correctly identified by Roger Morris at iRecord as Xanthogramma citrofasciatum.  This is yet another piece which has slotted nicely into our jigsaw of the old south-facing railway embankment as showing all the signs of a small pocket of chalk downland.  A thriving common lizard colony together with a number of yellow meadow ant-hill nests, narrow-bordered five-spot burnet moths as well as a good annual crop of yellow rattle, knapweed, scarbious, wild thyme, birds foot trefoil and many more plants which we associate with the nearby Cley Hill have long led us to this possibility, and this hoverfly which is widely seen as preferring downland is another sign.

However, we haven’t got completely carried away – if one swallow doesn’t make a summer, all of these signs, lovely though they are, don’t include any of the orchids or butterflies which are most typical of classic chalk downland, but nevertheless this identification adds considerable interest as another indication of the great degree of biodiversity that this stretch of cycle path provides.

29th April 2021 / Temp: 10.5 C / 3.00 – 5.00pm

Suprisingly warm sunshine so despite the chill wind our slow walk along Colliers Way was extremely enjoyable.  Lots of wild flowers beginning to appear, dominated by the cowslips lining both sides of the path, red campion, birds eye speedwell, ground ivy, a few lingering violets and of course dandelions making splashes of sunshine on the ground as well as in the heavens.

So many insects also making their appearance, as well as pollen coated bees we spotted this fragile looking Scorpion fly with its delicate transparent and spotted wings and extraordinarily long antennae fluttering amongst the talls grasses of the embankment.  Such a pretty harmless looking insect until we catch sight of  its prominent snout and remember its scorpion tail well hidden today and begin to wonder!  In fact it is perfectly harmless and feeds mostly on dead carrion.

It was while searching for signs of lizards all along the embankment that we spotted the scorpion fly but despite careful examination of every yellow meadow anthill, we didn’t spot one.  But we did begin chatting to a lovely couple who have taken to regularly walking the path since the first lock-down.  Nick and Lynne are from Midsummer Norton where they have also taken to walking the disused railway track close by and lock-down has led them to find lots of new walks from their own front door and they certainly have good sharp eyes – they had already spotted dozens of House Martins, Long-tailed Tits, Warblers, Goldfinches and Red Kites as well as roe deer and rabbits!  We were so pleased to hear about so many House Martins as we don’t often see them.  We all agreed that the long winter lock-down coupled with dire weather while in our case my husband endured a severe arthritis flare-up followed by my debilitating bout of bronchitis, had left us all under par so that the sunny weather and exchange of wildlife sightings gave our spirits a tremendously welcome lift.

There are lots of wild cherry trees scattered along the whole length of the hedgerow, all in full blossom at the moment, most of the apple trees are in tight pink bud about to burst forth and the hawthorn in even tighter bud but a week of sun should tempt them both to open.   And it was so wonderful to hear so much birdsong – Blackbirds, Chiff Chaffs, Willow Warblers, Robins, Wrens and Blackcaps and even our beloved Raven’s croaks. 

Although the cow parsleys were in full flower, we never find them a good plant for insect spotting whereas single hogweed, although nowhere near flowering, had already attracted a hoverfly (possibly a male Cheilosia pagana) crawling all over its bud and on a leaf lower down what we think was a celery leaf beetle, it’s back glowing burnished bronze in the sun.

We were beginning to tire so made our way slowly back along the path, heading for the picnic bench for a rest in the sun and a look at the view, where we were lucky to meet a delightful young couple, Alice and Jake from Radstock, who said that they used to cycle this path but decided that they didn’t get to see anything and so began to walk.  They were so friendly and chatty to two old codgers and it gave us such pleasure to hear about their busy lives – dashing off to Sweden or Pembrokeshire to visit family, having to twice pospone their wedding which had been planned in a beautiful country hotel, so lively and full of energy so it was a shock to hear that Alice had spent most of lock-down shielding as she was clinically extremely vunerable.  She had been ill and then diagnosed with type one diabetis, a tremendous shock and although she was full of praise for the care she had received and very brave, she was extremely unwell and the diagnosis had had a profound effect on her and the couple’s lifestyle. 

We began to swap wildlife sightings and were astonished that they had seen a wild boar on the path!  Jake said that they were flabbergasted to see it only about five minutes walk or so from the Radstock end of the path and couldn’t believe their eyes.  He also said that he was astonished to see how fast the boar moved as it dashed off and was soon lost to sight.  We didn’t think to ask whether the Radstock end of the path was very wooded but he did say that he had heard that boar had been introduced in the area so that is probably the explanation.  Otter and Beaver in the nearby Somerset River Frome, a Sea Eagle spending time hunting around the Longleat area, and now wild boar on Colliers Way – if this continues soon the whole of Somerset will be turned into a safari park!!

18th February 2021 / Temp: 9 C  / 2.45pm

Blue skies with sailing white clouds, chill wind and…  beautiful, glorious, heavenly sunshine!!!  Thank goodness, at last after hail storms, snow storms, gale force winds and relentless, never-ending seeming rain storms, the grey, drear weather has cleared the sun has come out and everyone in the entire district with their children, dogs, bicycles, and walking sticks have decided to promenade or pedal madly along the cycle path to enjoy the longed for sun.

The weeks of freezing weather seemed to have stilled the growth of plants and leaves for as we walk along it had the feeling of groundhog day – nothing has moved in the intervening weeks since our last visit.  There were a few primroses in flower, the lords & ladies were showing green, there were still no sign of violets along the embankment or in the sheltered spots under the trees whereas in previous years they would have been flowering for weeks.

But not all was not lost, a good many Robins, in their well spaced out and carefully chosen perches, shouted abuse at all and sundry, announcing their ownership of their small patch, and warning every passing Robin that this space is taken.  Long tailed Tits were everywhere, parties of them dashing about, backwards and forwards across the path for no known reason, Dunnocks and Blackbirds busy on the ground and in the trees, a Song Thrush singing beautifully from a hidden place in a hedge whilst Wood Pigeons and Crows made their regular fly-pasts overhead and Pheasants strutted and called from across the recently ploughed field.

Wooden fence posts are a never ending source of interest and intrigue, standing in lines supporting wires, forming a boundary of fields, pasture or arable crops they can be a suitable surface for thick dense moss, a resting place for a dozen or more face flies, a place for noon flies to bask in the sun or, as in this case, home for a collection of lichen.

Common Powderhorn (Cladonia cornicraea), Pixie Cup lichen, Mustard powder or gold dust lichen (Chrysothrix candelaris), Whitewash lichen (Phlyctis agena) and what looks very much like Amandinea punctate a greyish-yellow crust lichen with black blobs and what appears to be species of squamulouse and leprose lichen which I can’t begin to identify,  all finding a home on the slanting top of a fence post, the whole area of which is no more than a small handspan!  “To see the World in a grain of sand” or in this case to see a garden on a common fence post – why not if it is there?

The sun went in, the shadows lengthened, but there was enough light in the sky to turn the waterlogged path into a river of silver, it is still late winter after all, emphasised by the creeping chill becoming a little too cold to linger.  Sill time to spot a pair of Buzzards float over the nearby stand of trees, setting up the loudly complaining Jackdaws and Wood Pigeons, while silently hunting for a tasty high tea.

2nd February 2021 / Temp: 10 – 10.5 C / 10.50 am

Mostly cloudy but with the occasional break of a burst of wintery sunshine, a cool breeze but not too cold and it wasn’t raining!  Probably one of the dry rare few hours in an otherwise settled period of continuous wet days so it was good to get out for a quick walk between showers.

It is such a joy on these dull drab days of mid to late winter to catch sight of a single primrose plant in flower, which despite it’s wet and slightly bedraggled appearance, reminds us that spring is not that far away.  We also spotted one solitary yellow crocus plant in flower and a small clump of late flowering snowdrops still looking fresh and cheerful.  Lots of hazel catkins some as long as three inches and covered with pollen, some barely an inch and tight winter packed and everywhere we looked the bright green leaves of the lords and ladies were unfurling and standing proud.

We were pleased to see a partiucarly lovely example of jelly ear fungus on a branch where we first saw it and which we haven’t seen for a few years, growing among the branches of one of the several crab apple trees.  The ground is carpeted with fallen fruit the scent of which we can smell long before we reach the trees.  Rather taken to discover a couple of new badger setts hidden amongst the ivy underneath the trees.  We were surprised to see them so very close to the cycle path but they were well secluded and no doubt they enjoyed having a larder at the mouth of their sett.

When the days are dull and the wildlife scarce, lichens and mosses come into their own – the green moss seems to glow on the branches and on the ground, a welcome change from the overall brown branches, brown bare ploughed earth and brown dead plants! The very common orange lichen, Xanthoria parietina, in particular is such a splash of bright yellow, in some cases coating the entire tree as if it has been painted on.   

And the Hypotrachyna revoluta is always very attractive with its crumpled waxy pale green leaves uncurling at the edges to reveal the delicate tan underleaf.

Ramalina farinacea, the cartilege lichen, is always a welcome sight, particularly if it is mixed with other lichens or as is the case here, fighting for attention with the more vivid wood bristle-moss.

The number of birds is increasing, Robins being the most vociferous, shouting out their challenge to all comers while the Blackbirds were satisfied just to cackle their alarm call.  Parties of tits flitted among the branches of the trees, Chaffinches and Dunnocks, Crows and Jackdaws, Ravens and of course Wood Pigeons and Pheasants were spotted everywhere.  But the most striking sight was the number of Buzzards – 8 in all, in three different areas, circling above the path, four in a bunch, very noisily calling, probably two pairs, one protesting and trying to drive the other pair away.  We have never seen so many Buzzards at one time along the path.

25th January 2021 / Temp: 2 C / 10.45 am

We awoke on Sunday morning to an overnight covering of roofs and trees, paths and cars with a good fall of 4 inches of soft, pure white snow.  Within a couple of hours it began to melt and two mornings later as we set off down the path the remains of the snow storm had disappeared completely from the trees and it only lingered along scarcely trodden paths and fields.

It was cold and crisp, the skies were blue, the sun was full and surprisingly warm and the air sparkling and fresh – just about the most perfect conditions for a brisk winter walk along paths were there was enough snow to follow the tracks of animals and birds. 

There seemed to be rabbit tracks everywhere – criss-crossing the path, disappearing into the undergrowth, through the trees and down banks and hopping beside us, invisible save for their paws in the snow.  We were extremely surprised that there appeared to be so many; we very rarely see them, in fact we see more hares than rabbits, and it is a few years since we saw a large number of several families feeding on the grass margins alongside the corn field although we do see lots of droppings.  Perhaps these paw prints are rabbits using the path to move between burrows and the reason we don’t see them is because their burrows are well away from the path, somewhere where they are undisturbed by passing walkers an cyclists.

Crunch, crunch, crackle, crackle, crackle, crump, crump, crump.  How are we supposed to be able to creep up on some unsuspecting birds if our every step on the ice covered snow sends alarm bells sounding loud and clear in the still air?  Impossible, they all spotted us a mile off and took flight with loud alarm calls of their own, alerting their family parties to take care, whilst disappearing into the trees where they were soon lost to sight.

We did manage to spot a family party of House Sparrows pecking around in companionable cluster on the ground, joined by a couple of Robins, and even a beautiful male Bullfinch in his rose pink breast feathers.  There appeared to be plenty of Blackbirds, a few Chaffinches and Blue Tits, the usual noisy Crows and Wood Pigeons, we heard and saw a Raven and a Buzzard circling and of course the ubiquitous Pheasant the only bird tracks we could hazard a guess at.

Despite the dearth of wildlife it was intoxicating walking along, unimpeded by whizzing cyclists which often come up behind us far too quickly without letting us know they are there, or lycra clad, heads down, tearing past, far too close, forcing us off the path but so hazardous was the icy snow that we had the paths to ourselves to be able to drink in the sunlight sparkling and glittering and glinting on the snow, turning each single tiny frozen flake into a flashing diamond, first blue then gold.  So wonderfully quiet but exhilerating, far away from fears of pandemic, scary viruses and all the frustrations of lock-down, just an hour out of time to feel the hot sun on our backs and the snow beneath our feet and the feeling that all was perfect in this perfect of all possible worlds.

January 2021

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Happy New Year!!  Celebrating the end of the plague year 2020 and tentatively celebrating welcoming 2021 which with news of a vaccine against Covid 19 might be, we hope, a better year.

Finishing the year sharing angiogram, arthritis flare up and broken bones between us made it impossible to walk our path so we have been looking back over the year.  We were surprised to note that we managed to identify 46 new species to add to our growing list so there were high spots and delights as well as health scares, the lock-down fear and anxiety – it wasn’t all gloom and doom.  Favourite new species included the beautiful yellow & black ichneumon wasp Amblyteles armetorius, a delicate Muslin Moth, some purple jelly disc fungus, script lichen which we had long hoped to find and the Wild Service tree, which we had never noticed until spotting its vibrantly coloured autumn leaves glowing in the sunlight.

We look forward to vaccination, spring warmth, the returning butterflies and wild flowers with a great deal more hope for 2021.

17th December 2020

Confined to the house with a broken toe for the past fortnight, it’s good to be reminded of happier times on this day a year or two ago from John Hansford:

“A quick visit this afternoon produced a distant Moorhen, only my second Moorhen sighting on the Down so I was particularly delighted.

DSCN6759.JPGMoorhen – John Hansford

I counted 51 Blackbirds with several small groups including one of 11 Blackbirds together, 35+ Redwings – good evidence of weather driven Bird movement.  22+ Bullfinches including a Group of 12 feeding on the ground out in the open, a Brambling with a few Chaffinches.  Other Birds seen included 3 Song Thrushes, Fieldfare, Great Spotted Woodpecker, Wren, Long-Tailed Tit, Great Tit, Blue Tit, Buzzard, Yellowhammer, Linnet, Woodpigeon, Raven, Carrion Crow, Goldfinch, Dunnock, Robin and Pheasant.  Disappointingly no Redpolls today.”

We hope that this was an equally bumper December.

26th November 2020 / Temp : 6 C / 2.10pm – 3.45pm

Overnight heavy frost and fog had been burned off  to leave an afternoon of glorious bright sunshine which warmed the crisp, clear, chill air of early winter and made us feel energised and alive.  After a period of ill-health which has kept us confined to the house for nearly ten days, the bright sunshine together with feeling the warm sun on our backs made for a welcome celebration of being out and about again.  This feeling wasclearly shared with others as there were more walkers along the path than we have seen at this time of the year for some years.

A couple of mothers with two very young children, around the age of three or four, were making their slow progress along the way, chatting while the little ones ran on.  We stopped while trying to spot an elusive bird whose chirps and whistles we didn’t recognise, when we could hear the little boy shouting at the top of his voice.  He want on and on – loud and free, shouting at the world!  When we eventually caught up, he was still shouting and the mother apologised.  How worried we always are when as young mothers our children express the joy we are all feeling in what may seem an inappropriate way, when actually we would all like to stand and shout our defiance at pandemics, at being tied our homes, unable to visit our friends and famly, share hugs and meals and our small triumphs and moments of pleasure – in fact join in with the little boy in standing on an embankment in the bright winter sunshine and just bellow!!

Although most of the trees had already lost their leaves, there was the occasional outlier, whose golden leaves burnished by the sun delighted the eye.  And what is so lovely at this time of the year is to catch sight of the willows already sprouting the well-formed buds of next year’s leaves, reminding us that winters (and hopefully pandemics) don’t last forever.

Maybe because of the number of people passing too and fro along the path both walking and cycling there were few birds about – lots of imported Pheasants everywhere of course, bred for the local shoot, Wood Pigeons, Jackdaws and Crows, but also a few Robins and Blackbirds, a Magpie and the welcome sight of a Buzzard wheeling overhead.  Not many birds but clouds and clouds of winter gnats clustering in the centre of the path, all around our heads as we walked through them.  None of the other walkers we chatted to had seen anything of note, although one had seen a Pied Wagtail.  Most mentioned the increase in the numbers of Red Kites in the area, one having seen 7 or 8 together over the fields, and how disappointed they were at not having seen any deer.

Lots of the trees are coated with mosses and lichen, far more noticeable in winter, climbing their trunks, clinging to their branches and smothering the smallest twigs, the same species repeated again and again but so perfect in their shapes and colours, as beautiful as the loveliest flower.

One yellow banded snail and a single woodlouse were the only signs of life under the bridge – although there was a severe frost last night, it has been an unusually mild autumn so the usual cracks and crevices do not yet have their lines of hibernating snails.

Whatever the time of year and whatever the weather, if there are flowers on the hogweed there will be flies feeding on them.  Today there were just one or two on each flower head but often we see half a dozen or more; understandable when it is growing ever colder and there are fewer and fewer flowers.

Finally, as we were turning for home just as the sun was already half sunk on the horizon and had lost its warmth and we could suddenly see our breath in the fast chilling air, a small flock of Redwings flew over the hedgerow heading east towards the woods at Newbury Firs to roost.  A good sign for us to head for shelter too.

12th November 2020

Post from John Hansford this afternoon: 

Great hour on Mells Down, surreal to listen to several Redwings gently warbling in dense cover, obvious influx of Blackbirds, 2 roving Bullfinch flocks, 2 resident Red Kites, 7+ Buzzards, 3 Ravens + brief snatches of gentle Song Thrush song.”

oh….  and a roe deer!  John’s eagle eyes catching sight of a good autumn sightings as usual!  We have yet to see a single Redwing this month, we must make time to check out Colliers Way.

2nd November 2020 / 11 – 9.5 C / 2.10pm – 3.55pm

This line of shrubby, low lying trees, looking for all the world like a Jackson Pollock, form a lot of old English hedgerows – mostly hazel, hawthorn, elder, guelder rose and blackthorn.  Their branches are always smothered with moss and lichen, so much more noticeable in autumn and winter when they are not hidden by their leaves.The strong and blustery wind, chilling and rain-threatening, meant a pretty brisk walk to keep warm.  Scudding clouds did give the occasional splash of sunshine, painting the leaves with gold and lighting up the trees but these bursts were infrequent and in the main the light was dull and gloomy.

None of this diminished our pleasure in spotting a healthy crop of Black Stone flower lichen (above)  lifting its skirts to show us its tan coloured underside.  It’s one of our favourite lichens and good to see it thriving here.

Among the variety of different species of moss and lichen, we spotted the lovely strands of strap or cartilege lichen festooning the branches, and on the same tree a shield lichen (possibly Parmelia sulcata). 

The wind was so strong and cold that we decided to walk down to what we call the Soggy Bottom cutting, named after the oak bench under the trees at the top, which always seems to be wet whatever the weather.  This is where the disused railway line used to cut through the steep slopes of Newbury Firs on one side and the embankment on the other.  There is a grove of very tall Ash trees alongside the path and badger setts at the summit on both sides  of the cutting where the weeks of rain having made badger paths more like badger slides.

We like to check out this area at this time of the year because we usually see flocks of Redwings and Fieldfares (and even one year hearing an absolute cacophony of Gold Finches) but today they seemed to be sheltering from the wind and not one appeared.  In fact, apart from a few Wood Pigeons, shoot-reared Pheasants and a small flock of Rooks, the woods were silent.The other reason we come here in autumn is to check on so many species of fungus which we usually find here and we particularly loved the lines of striking trooping funnel massed on the banks beneath the badger setts.  We were rather crushed to find only four, looking rather forlorn.   It has been a strange year for species being either very late or very early and this could be the case here, although a good  many trees were cut down on this bank last year so this may have had a detrimental effect, but whatever the reason, it was sad to notice such a massive depletion from  last year’s wonderful display.

The sad tale of the missing fungi continued as we walked deeper and deeper down the cutting.   But we did spot a large sawn off length of wood which had been well-gnawed

by roe deer by the size of the marks, a sure sign that winter is approaching.  The ground around a nearby oak tree was inches deep in a layer of acorns which was surprising as we often see squirrels there.  When we spotted a sizeable branch of the tree stripped of its bark, we took that to mean that they were around but not interested in the acorns.

I was surprised to read that the squirrels usually strip the bark of trees in July, a difficult time for foraging, after the buds but before the nuts of autumn.  So maybe the acorns are still lying on the ground because the squirrels have gone elsewhere.  Despite the damage they do, particularly when it is to trees like oaks, we do like to see them launching themselves from branch to branch at top speed!

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, and although the top one looks very like alder bracket fungus, we can fantasize that the lower one 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 Spiked 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.

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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!

COLLIERS WAY WILD NIGHT OUThttps _cdn.evbuc.com_images_72594481_338179264255_1_original.20190912-143036.jpg

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 comm