Wild Waterways

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The River Frome

The 21 mile long Somerset River Frome rises near Witham Friary, gathering smaller rivers, streams and tributaries along the way, including those from Colliers Way route 24, before flowing through the town of Frome and on to Freshford where it joins the Bristol Avon.

INQUISITIVE OTTER..jpgFemale Otter 2016 – copyright Tony House

The Somerset Otter Group have asked us to regularly survey an allocated a stretch of  the River for signs of Otters.  Reports of Otter sightings in the streams on Colliers Way sparked our interest; we knew dog Otters can sometimes travel up to twenty miles a night in search of food so the likelihood of it being a foraging Otter from the River Frome was pretty high so we were delighted to help.   Somerset Otter Group.

11th December 2018 / 7 C

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The weather was cloudy but with a light breeze so it didn’t feel so cold as yesterday.  The river along this stretch is even more dramatic than yesterday’s site, a full and raging torrent, fast with swirling currants.  A 20 odd feet alder tree had been uprooted somewhere upstream and was caught across almost the whole width of the weir, trapping other fallen branches in its wake.  Although signs indicated the water level had dropped by 1-2 feet from yesterday, it was still higher than we have ever seen it, so it was not surprisingly that we found no signs of otter at all at any of the survey sites.

However, we did see roe deer tracks and a partially eaten wood pigeon caught wedged between the branches of a tree beside a flooded ditch. We were at a loss to think how it could have got caught and could only assume it had been dropped by a bird of prey.  We remembered a mass of feathers scattered along the branch of a tree along Colliers Way where a Sparrowhawk had enjoyed his wood-pigeon from a roost in the tree rather than on the ground.

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While we stopped to chat to a couple of fishermen, the sun came out and was surprisingly warm on our backs and made us feel glad to be out despite the disappointing lack of otter signs.

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 One of the fisherman caught a small half pound chub while we were there and the second had managed to catch a four and a half pound one earlier in the morning.  It looked beautiful, healthy and well grown and the fisherman confirmed that this was true of all the fish he had caught in the river.

The river was so quiet and calm there, with no sign of the turbulence farther upstream, but still very full.  He had seen a cormorant earlier, but no other birds apart from the blackbirds, we had also noticed and the usual tits, crows and jackdaws.

We missed seeing and dodging Ernie the bull and his harem – the fields seemed strangely empty and deserted without them plus, with most of the leaves already fallen, rather bleak and wintry.

10th December 2018 / 7 C

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Cold north-easterly winds but full sun as we sloshed along the path, sinking into the soft mud, before crawling under the electric fence to get to the water meadows and the river.  A Little Egret was busy feeding on the grass in an adjoining field and first a Heron and then as we reached the river bank we disturbed a Cormorant in the water which also lifted into the air and circled the field.  A flurry of wings and splashings caught our attention, just in time to see 5 Goosanders (2 male, 3 female) scoot down river; our first sighting this winter and it was so good to see that they had returned.

The river was in full spate, swirling and fast, the water level high, although by the look of the water raked grass on one of the beaches, the level had in fact fallen from its peak.  Unfortunately it was far too deep and the flow too fast for us to cross to the island or even to wade upriver.  The stony beach had disappeared underwater but we were pleased to see in the thick mud of the smaller beach a line of fresh pad marks, the only signs of Otter activity.  There were no signs of spraint anywhere – either fresh or old.

We checked all the other sites along our survey stretch and the results were the same – flooded beaches and a complete absence of spraint along the entire length and no more pad marks.  This was probably due to the water level but it was also rather concerning to see first one more and then another two Cormorants, totalling four in all fishing in the river.  It is well-known from reports all around the country that Cormorants are depriving fisherman and Otters of fish, so great is their increasing numbers, and the sudden appearance of Cormorants on this stretch leads us to suppose they are winter migrants from the Baltic sea.DSCN5749.JPG

We saw a Buzzard circling as we walked along the water meadow, and the results of his last two meals in the shape of the wide scattering of wood-pigeon feathers on the grass.  We also noticed at least a dozen or so Mallard, two Swans and a well-grown cygnet in the river and as we walked along the river bank, while flocks of Fieldfares Redwing.jpg

Redwings shot across the sky from the hawthorn berries on the bushes beside the river and Jackdaws and Crows flapped about the sky above us, chattering and croaking, while a tiny Wren and parties of Tits busied themselves amongst the branches of the trees.  There were lots of midges everywhere and still a good harvest of berries for them to feed on.

11th November 2018 / 12.5 C

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The river is in spate after days of torrential rain and the water level has risen significantly.  It is lower than at the height of the flood but striking after the very low levels of a week or so ago.  The grasses on the wide stony beach were flattened and raked into rows by the force of the water which left detritus strewn on the ground and caught in the trees when the water level fell. We found no signs of otter along all the usual sites on our stretch of the river which was probably caused by the rising water levels washing any spraint away coupled with the fact that most of the stones where the otters usually spraint were under water. The only droppings we did notice were bird droppings containing hawthorn stones, possibly magpie.

There were few birds around, we heard a Raven and Buzzard, spotted a Sparrowhawk, several Robins, Wrens, Wood Pigeons and Crows and a very large flock of Jackdaws, Rooks and Gulls swirling around in the sky above our heads.  We were delighted to catch sight of a Kingfisher perched on a rose thorn branch facing downstream which regretfully flew off at our approach, flashing its iridescent turquoise/green wings.

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We ran into the fisherman and his wife whom we have met several times before and he told us that about 18 months ago he  had seen a female otter with two very young cubs playing in the water close to where he was fishing.  In between telling us how he hated otters and how evil they were he did also mention that about 3 or so months ago a friend of his who was fishing on this stretch of the river was astonished to see an otter grabbing his newly caught fish off his hook!

He was less critical of Barn Owls and was excited that he had seen a pair which nested every year in an old barn in the poplar field downriver from our location.  He loved going there at dusk and watching them hunting across the fields and gave us detailed directions on how to find the barn and the site of the nesting boxes the farmer has put up around the field.  Lovely at this time of year to think about planning spring evenings  next breeding season venturing out to check on the Barn Owls.

6th November 2018 / 13.5 C

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Cloudy, windy and wet underfoot but a rare dry day in this period of heavy rainstorms as we set out.  As Ernie the bull was standing in the gateway, surrounded by his cluster of young heifers, we moved on to the next field where we were disappointed not to see any signs of otter and where the buzzard mewing overhead summed up our mood.  We trudged on to the next site and were delighted to find four very fresh spraint and one recent red spraint.  The water level was extraordinarily low and the river banks thickly carpeted with copper coloured dead leaves so finding signs was proving difficult.

As we moved on to check the next site, a watery sun came out and shone on the two Little Egrets which rose at our approach, their snowy white feathers gleaming against the dark grey heavily clouded sky.  They were soon joined by a couple of Heron which were forced to share the pasture with at least fifty plus Jackdaws and Rooks, flocks of Blackheaded and Lesser Black Backed gulls and as we came closer to the river, we scattered a large flock of a dozen or so Mandarin Ducks and three or four dozen Mallard.DSCN5606.JPG

We have at last reached our favourite stretch of the river where the fast flowing water hurtled along over boulders, ripples over stones, and is forced around those clogged with dead branches and leaves.  Normally we wade upstream to the gravel beach to hunt for spraint and look longingly at the small island which we are unable to reach due to the depth of the water.  But today, after such a long dry summer, the river level has dropped lower each time we come and was shallow enough for us to wade carefully with the help of our sticks, avoiding the moss-covered boulders, through the rushing water to the island, disturbing a pair of Mute Swans and their fully grown cygnet.

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The island was a delight.  Overgrown, tangled with tall grasses, fallen moss and golden lichen covered branches, making any advance hazardous, we edged our way over thickly planted uneven ground, under fallen rotting trees until we reached a beach strewn with otter spraint, some very old and crumbly, some very new, black and treacly, and two containing what looked like undigested fish eggs.  So secluded, well concealed and safe from trampling cattle or passing walkers – it is a very otter haven!

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Pressure of time and encumbered with cameras, notebooks, bags and binoculars we were not able to explore the whole island, the fallen trees were too many and the undergrowth too impenetrable but given the promise of ten days of unbroken rain to come, we felt so pleased to have the had opportunity to explore the small area we could access and where we may not be able to get to again.

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We climbed back up the steep river bank to the pasture and as we made our way homewards, we ran into the farmer who has given us permission to survey his river and stopped to chat.  He had lived on the farm all his life and pointed out where the Sand Martins used to build their nests on a sandy bank when he was a boy, how he was a member of the Somerset Ornithological Society and had seen a Great Grey Shrike, often saw Snipe and last year watched a mother otter and her two cubs playing under the bridge.

21st October 2018 / 13.5 C

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Beautiful autumn afternoon, warm and sunny, the White Poplar leaves silvering as the bright sunlight catches their fluttering leaves and turning the Aspen leaves to pure yellow gold.  We found fresh and recent spraint on the gravel beach but no other signs of otter along the whole stretch of river bank.  A bright yellow cluster of tansy flowers and some water forget me nots were the only signs of life as most of the plants have already died down.  We watched four or five Common Darter dragonflies working their way along the water’s edge but the river crowfoot, so lushly green only a few weeks ago, is now brown and lifeless.  However, it was good to catch sight of a Red Admiral, always an autumn favourite although given the huge numbers we saw everywhere last autumn we were surprised to see so few in the summer.  Their numbers dropped throughout the country, the cause believed to be the late cold snap affecting their overwintering here.

There were plenty of fish rising in the slower stretches of water, a flash of Kingfisher’s wings as he turned out of sight, the squawk of a moorhen and the sudden noisy krk krk of a couple of jackdaws mobbing a Red Kite.  The raptor, looking beautifully striking as the sun highlighted his markings, soared and swirled but was unable to lose them, particularly when they were joined by two more and then a third and the five of them in concert fearlessly harried and mobbed the very much larger Kite until he eventually gave up and flew away.  Later, when a pair of Buzzards appeared, they kept to circling the middle of the river pasture and were ignored by both the Jackdaws and some passing Crows.

It wasn’t until we sat on a log soaking up the sun that we noticed six or seven large clumps of clustered brittlestem fungus glowing in the low sunlight falling across the field; we had seen a clump of honey fungus at the foot of a hawthorn tree by the river and a sprinkling of small unidentified fungus along the hedgerow, including a splendid dried up funnel fungus but overall, surprising few fungi for the time of year.

DSCN5424.JPG– Ernie –

Walking back down the field we caught sight of the bull  – fortunately in the adjoining field a good distance from his heifers.  He looked rather out of sorts so we were glad that the metal gate was between us!

10th October 2018 / 22.5 C

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Extraordinarily warm – mid-October and the sun is hot and the sky unbroken blue, more like mid-summer than mid-autumn.

The bull and his heifers are no longer clustered around the gate as they did yesterday, preventing us from getting into the field, but they were only slightly farther away and we walked carefully and quietly, close to the river, while keeping a wary eye.  Fortunately after giving us a long considered stare, to our great relief the bull returned to eyeing up a young heifer’s backside and continued chewing his cud.  We didn’t see signs of otter by the weir but didn’t linger, we were just glad to get through and into the next field!

Disappointingly only one fresh spraint at the gravel beach site, no signs of anything very much even though we searched diligently, unable to believe we hadn’t missed something significant.   The river water crowfoot was looking beautifully healthy and we did at least eventually spot a single Common Darter Dragonfly.

No signs of otter at the next site either, maybe like us the otters were just too hot to move!  We walked on and eventually sat down to rest on the river bank, the sun burning our backs, admiring the stand of large willow trees on the opposite bank whose leaves had begun to turn to every shade from pale yellow to deep gold, tossed and fluttering in the welcome cool breeze.  An Emperor dragonfly flew by, hawking up and down the river, followed after he disappeared by a Southern Hawker, replaced soon after by a Brown Hawker, all far too fast for me to photograph.  We were absorbed in watching the dragonflies and enjoying the heat of the day and the calm inducing quiet of the river when a bird flew down and perched on an alder branch opposite.  We were astonished and delighted to see it was a Sparrow-hawk but unfortunately our hope of watching it possibly preen or hunt was dashed as simply raising our binoculars was enough to scare it off.  We had been listening to Great Tits and seen Blue Tits and other small birds flitting through the trees, so it is perhaps not surprising that they would attract a hungry raptor on the hunt.

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Whilst stopping to examine a clump of Glistening Inkcap mushrooms on the way back, we suddenly heard a loud sharp crack across the quiet air from across the field and a large branch of an Ash tree split and fell with a crash onto the ground.  We did wonder if the long, hot dry spell of this extraordinary summer and autumn was the cause as we had already noticed quite a few fallen trees both in the river and along the boundary of the field.

When we turned for home, hot and tired, we were exasperated to see that the bull and his harem had again clustered around the gate making it impossible for all but the most foolhardy to attempt to get through.  This meant a wide detour and climbing first one and then another metal five-barred gate to return to the road.  It was impossible to be cross for as we passed the gate we could see that some of the cows were quite young and all were beautiful,  Holstein-Frisian heifers with glossy black and white coats and clear eyes.  The handsome Hereford bull, brown and cream and very, very large stood behind them, at the back, keeping a close and careful eye out for his cows.

9th October 2018 / 12.5 C – 18 C

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9.30am Beautiful autumn morning, stiff breeze but full sun and clear blue skies.

Water levels are still very low which makes for easy wading under bridges and over stones.  We spotted a large clump of common Michaelmas daisy beside the river but no signs of otter under the first bridge, very unusual as we often see most of our spraint here and under the culvert nearby.  However, in the nearby field which is often empty of signs, we found very fresh spraint in two different places on the bank beside a large bed of reeds where the grass was trampled down and crushed, almost as if a body had lain there.

We chatted to a member of the Frome Angling Association who was fishing for chub, hearing tales of very large fish in these waters where he had recently been astonished to catch a 7.12 lb koi carp by the bridge and often caught brown trout.  He had also seen signs of otter in the river further upstream and was amused that twice a Kingfisher had perched on the end of his rod, waiting to fish!

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We walked on to the large beach where we spotted crayfish remains and one fresh spraint.  The rough pasture and skies overhead were filled with birds, a Little Egret flying up into its roost, two Cormorants, a large flock of Rooks and Jackdaws mobbing a Buzzard and two Swans, one of whom flew noisily and aggressively directly at me as I paddled in the stream before planing on the water and swimming serenely, onwards followed by its mate.

We thought it better to move on to the next site where we disturbed a Heron and nine Mallard with two ducklings the only ones to have survived this year’s brood.  Lots more Jackdaws and Rooks both on the ground and in the sky.  A good crop of spraint at this site, two fresh, two recent, five old and a splash of anal jelly as well as crayfish remains. A good crop of turkey tail fungus had formed on a pile of logs and nearby a scattering of what looked like bearded fieldcap mushrooms.

The next two sites were empty of interest although some of the forget-me-nots, Himalayan balsam, water mint were still in flower and lots of clumps of teasel.  Above the barn on the hill, we could see nearly a dozen white doves making a striking picture as the sun caught their snowy white wings as they flew up and turned and banked about the red-tiled roof-top.

DSCN5250.JPGPossibly Bearded Fieldcap Mushroom

 23rd September 2018

Autumn Equinox –

9th September 2018

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Beautifully sunny afternoon and warm for September as we sauntered along the river bank, downstream from our usual haunts, closer to where the River Frome joins the Avon.  Known in Victorian times as the Nightingale Valley, it is still a favourite walk despite the absence of Nightingales.  An idyllic stretch of river valley, wide grassy meadows sprinkled with sheep, the river first widening and rippling over stones where the occasional dipper is busy in the shallows, then narrowing with deep pools and small waterfalls, stretches of water lilies, trails of ranunculus, stands of club rush with glimpses of the lovely Grey Wagtail, its soft gray and yellow a bright contrast against the dark green undergrowth.  A Grey Heron lifted from the shallows and flew off downstream as we walked, to land and settle and then lift again as we drew closer, a pair of Swans drifted regally by and Magpies chatter noisily amongst the trees.

We very rarely walk along this stretch of river without seeing Kingfishers, often a pair, zipping up and down the water, peeping their sharp alarm calls, alerting us to their appearance.  We sometimes catch a quick flash as they disappear under the trees, sometimes we get a longer view as they skim past, mere inches above the water line, however many times we see them, they always fill us with joy and delight.

As we headed for home, a little wearily after our long walk, we paused to rest, sitting on the grassy bank, backs to the sun, enjoying the quiet, peace and calm of a late summer afternoon in early autumn.  We watched a red bodied Common Darter dragonfly hunting the edges, a Comma butterfly lifting, straightening and displaying its vividly colour wings, a large bright Hornet examining the newly fruited pale wild hop bracts threaded through the flowering ivy and up into the branches of a sycamore, while idly watching the tweeting and twittering parties of Great and Blue Tits dashing around the trees opposite, so content we were reluctant to move.

evelyn-simak1.jpgCopyright:  Evelyn Simak

Suddenly we caught sight of a grass snake in the water below the opposite bank,  swimming upstream.  We had a wonderful view as it eased around the reeds, under the overhanging grass and out into open water.  More blue than green, about two and a half feet long, the bright yellow flashes of its collar glowing in the light from the low sun falling over the river.  We watched for five minutes or more as it swam first up, turning, swam downstream, slithering over the large stones, but quite fast in the deep water, before it eventually wriggling up the river bank into the long grass and was soon lost to sight in the undergrowth.  We were enchanted.  Our first sighting of a grass snake swimming in the river instead of our more frequent sightings in local lakes made a fitting finale to a perfect afternoon.

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Not so warm this morning, a definite warning chill of autumn, but pleasant enough for a gentle ramble over the water meadows down to the river, setting up forty plus Mallard, two Heron and a snowy white Little Egret, who fly away, over our heads, complaining vociferously.  The Herons and Little Egrets land in the meadow, hang around like bored teenagers until, as we showed no signs or moving away from the river, they fly up into their roosts in the trees along the field boundary.  We nearly always see at least 4 or 5 birds of both species in these fields, which indicates a healthy number of fish along this stretch of the river.

This field is pasture for a good herd of black and white cattle and so inevitably there are lots of badger diggings, snuffle holes and full dung pits – traps for the unwary.  The sun is not warm enough to dry the overnight dewdrops from the uncountable number of cobweb sacks strewn across the grass, so many they are impossible to avoid, which highlights as little else does the sheer number of spiders on grassland.DSCN5023.JPG

By far the best sighting of the day was the discovery of copious spraint, both recent and very fresh, along the stretch of river where the force of the current has scoured out a stony beach.  One spraint so fresh it still contained the black jelly like substance which usually dries within hours so it must have been deposited earlier that morning.  There were also crayfish remains scattered in the water, although all the spraint was black and crammed with fish bones and scales and the only red coloured droppings were those of the Herons, who are also known to eat crayfish.

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Finally, as we crossed the fields heading for home, it was upsetting to find the remains of what appeared by its colouring to be a juvenile Grey Heron.  Impossible to know how it died but it is said that accuracy of feeding for Heron, whether it’s fish, frogs or small rodents, comes with age and experience. Young birds born last summer are under pressure to find enough to eat and many die of starvation trying to hone their killing skills.  Another possibility is the bird flying into power cables or even, given the very dry summer and at least some of their prey being frogs, there was a shortage of food.  Starvation could certainly appear to be a possible explanation in this case.

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5th September 2018 / 17.5 – 19 CDSCN5034.JPG

Beautifully sunny September morning with blue skies, fair weather clouds and a fresh breeze.  Lots of activity under the bridge with several black Otter spraint filled with fish scales and a single red spraint showing a recent meal of crayfish.  Half a dozen pad marks in the soft muddy margins of the river and the usual spraint at the entrance to the dark tunnel alongside the bridge.

The banks of the narrow rill are still crammed with flowering plants – gypsywort, Himalayan balsam, purple loosestrife, common valerian, reeds and teasels – although some of the blooms are fading and none have the same density of colour as at midsummer, they still make a wonderful splash of colour and lift the spirits.  As for butterflies, a Small Tortoiseshell, a Large White and the brilliantly coloured Small Copper (which we have barely seen this year) were the only ones to be seen all day.

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No signs of otter along the stony beach and only one solitary Banded Demoiselle reminding us of summer days.DSCN5009.JPG

There were also no signs of otter at the next site but we were able to watch the dragonflies flitting among the Water Mint, Water Speedwell and standing Reeds and between the Trifid Bur-Marigolds and Lilly Pads along the water’s edge, a Brown Hawker, Migrant Hawker and Common Darter hunting among the plants.  We disturbed a Heron from his fishing and walking carefully, managed to avoid treading on the leaping Field Grasshoppers and delicate grass moths as we crossed the meadow, heading for home.

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Overcast skies and a blustery breeze gave a welcome coolness to an otherwise hot summer with little rain and we thought it would be a good opportunity to check the water plants along a stretch of the river.  When searching for otter spraint, we are often distracted by a vivid flash of colour from damselflies or the gaudier flowers along the river bank or in the meadows as we move from field to field but the water plants rarely draw the eye.  We acknowledge them in our peripheral vision but there always seems something more interesting to observe.

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Some of the plants were completely unknown to us and although we attempted to identify them with the aid of one of the very useful Field Studies Council’s waterproof identification guides, even that proved unhelpful faced with the plant itself.  However, we did manage to spot a large clump of watercress and, when lying flat on the bank to recover a specimen, saw a layer of crescent cup liverwort coating the side of the bank above the waterline.  Shepherds Rod sprinkled the undergrowth and the boggy part of the field which is often underwater from the overflow of a small stream was carpeted with an incredibly thick layer of water speedwell.  We noted the stretches of milfoil, fennel pondweed and amphibious bistort floating in amongst the river water crowfoot, yellow water-lily pads so our day wasn’t wasted.

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A late splash of sunshine was enough to encourage a few butterflies at least.  A good number of large whites of course, but also a meadow brown and small blue as well as a few damselflies, common blues and banded demoiselles and a brown hawker dragonfly.  A more brilliant flash of blue heralded a kingfisher dashing past and, while a buzzard circled mewing hopefully and great parties of house martins and swallows flew down low mere inches above the grass, so as the shadows lengthened we sat on a log and watched as they began swooping back and forth across the river meadow hunting midges.  They are so delightful to watch and give such pleasure but with a small tinge of sad awareness that in less than a month they will all be gone and summer will be over.  Little else moved, the cows had been collected for milking, the breeze had dropped so the trees were still and we sat quietly, soaking up the sun and the peace and tranquility of a mid-August afternoon.

1st August 2018 – 19.5 – 22 C

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A blessedly cooler day in this summer of almost relentless heat and parched countryside as we walked across the fields to the river.  Here although the water is much lower, the trees and plants are still green, and despite the hawthorn berries already reddening and the blackberries being huge and fully ripened, they are bitter from lack of water so there is a risk that both will fall early thus starving the winter immigrants of their usual autumn feast.

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We waded along the river bed to the large white-stone strewn beach where we found fresh and recent spraint and lots of crayfish remains.  The river is beautiful here, secretive and very quiet, the only sound the tumble of the water over the stones, a haven for otters feeding cubs.  Thick beds of Water Crowfoot trap lots for the fish to eat, the willows, alders and hawthorns shade the river from the worst of the fierce summer sun and the banks are filled with newly opening brilliant yellow tansy flowers, the gentle blue water forget me not and the deep pink of the great willow-herb.   A kingfisher shot past, a heron lifted and flew off, two buzzards drifted and circled on the thermals, and out of nowhere a brown hare leapt from the river margins the tore, ears alert, across the cow pasture.  Impossible for us to identify whether it was a female leaving young leverets well hidden in the long grass as it is still the breeding season or if it was an outlying solitary male, but our spirits always lift when we see one.

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We continued to work around our sites, finding pad marks on the soft mud at the edge of a beach, fresh spraint on a stone beside a large clump of redshank.

As the sun came out we walked along a narrow, extraordinarily thickly massed flower-filled ditch or rill, crammed with great willow-herb, purple loosestrife, common valerian and thistles forming a beautiful dense abundance of almost every shade of violet and purple, mauve and pink, among the unbranched bur-reed and tall waving seed heads of the common reed.  The air above the plants was filled with fluttering butterflies, green veined whites, large whites, meadow browns and dancing deep dark blue banded demoiselle damselflies, a lovely, lovely sight, the pure essence of a warm summer afternoon in a river meadow.  Then, as we drew closer to the bridge, we were startled by a sudden movement and hearing a sharp cry, turned and watched as a Snipe exploded off the ground and flew  beyond the trees and out of sight.  This was our first ever sight of a Snipe, what a marvellous moment to treasure!

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As we sat and rested and ate our lunch on a quiet grassy bank under the cool shade of the trees, we heard a sharp peep peeping alarum call and were astonished to see two kingfishers shoot up from the river, past our heads, skimming low across the field, one seemingly chasing the other, the sun catching their brilliant blue wing feathers as they disappeared down river, the sight of them clinging to the eye’s retina, as we marvelled at the sheer density of colour while we turned back to resume watching a dull brown hawker dragonfly continuing his incessant hunt up and down the river plants, and a Roach gently flapping its tail,  waiting for some passing water bugs to nibble, quite oblivious to all the fuss!

2nd August 2018 – 19 C

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A quiet overcast day for us to complete our survey on the sites we didn’t manage to get to yesterday.  Quiet in every way, no sound, no birds apart from a solitary raven and a panicked wren shouting out, few butterflies, a dead sheep sprawled across a log on the opposite bank and no sign of otter activity bar a small scatter of dried up crayfish remains.

However there are fewer pleasures greater than walking a river bank in summer, the newly opening water figwort with its dark red flowers and the duller red of the clumsy burdock, drooping from lack of water, beside the tiny pale flowers on the bare stems of the vervain plant.  The water margins are filled with water mint, clumps of gypsy-wort and water forget me not while the lovely fat buds of the yellow water-lily bob gently up and down on the current.  And there is always something new to see, like the stone horseshoe sculpture erected in the river bed, similar to the more elaborate towers which have been built farther downriver at Iford.

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 Stone Horseshoe

If it wasn’t for the general lack of activity, we probably wouldn’t have noticed the yellow and black striped insect feeding on a thistle flower.  It looked like a hornet but it flew away as we drew near and it was only when it re-settled that we noticed its clear narrow wings and realised it was a Clearwing Hornet Moth, a Nationally Scarce (Nationally Notable) B insect. They usually eat wood, preferable the Black Poplar (there are many along the nearby hedgerow) on which to lay their eggs, so it was quite surprising to see it out in the field away from the trees feeding on a thistle.

21st July 2018 – 25.5 C

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Whilst walking along the hedgerow on the edge of the riverside pasture, we came across a scooped out wasps’ nest, its papery combs torn apart and scattered all around and some two dozen or so wasps still buzzing and climbing over the remains.  According to The Badger Watching Man, Badgers are (as far as he knew) the only animals that dig wasps’ nests out of the ground in this way. He believed that they are not after the adult wasps, but the juicy, protein-rich larvae. Dry spells, like the one we’re in now, where the ground is so hard, aren’t good for badgers. It’s harder for them to find and dig up worms so they need to look for alternative sources of food. Wasps’ nests are ideal.  Last year’s wasp nest which was dug into the side of the concrete edge of the weir and which seemed to just disappear may have suffered the same fate.

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There was very little activity either on or above the water, few birds, only Great willow-herb, Himalayan Balsam, Water Figwort, Fat Hen and False Watercress in flower but we were entertained by the farmer and his dog shepherding the cows across the field for milking by way of the farmer’s estate car and the dog’s barks!

7th July 2018  – 24 C

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A beautiful hot summer’s day, full sun, blue skies without a cloud and we spent the afternoon exploring the river with our family.  The young boys clambered about excitedly among the stones and shallow water under the bridge, with Dad and Grandpa and Aunty’s help,  searching for gems and yelling in triumph when they discovered a claw of a crayfish, a freshwater shrimp, a water hog-louse and shouting with utter glee when they splashed after shoals of minnows and turned a stone to discover a common bullhead!

When we walked along the bank they hung precariously over the wall of the weir to spot the dozens of damsel and dragonflies among the reeds, chased the grasshoppers and grass moths across the meadow, the tried and tried without going cross-eyed to count the spots on the nineteen spot ladybird.

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The river banks were filled with figwort and great willowherb, purple loosestrife and red campion, cow parsley and creeping cinquefoil, water forget me not and purple flowering teasels while the summer butterflies fluttered up and down – Red Admirals, Brimstones, Orange Tips, Marbled Whites, Small Tortoiseshells and of course this year’s bumper crop of Large and Green Veined Whites dominating the flower heads.

When we reached the beach, although the boys poked about looking for treasure, when none appeared they splashed in the shallows, threw small stones into the river and drove any self-respecting fish, crayfish, animal and insect scuttling away to safety while their Mum and Dad, Aunty, Grandma and Grandpa sat under the welcome shade of the willows, chatting and sleepily watching the swifts chasing in the sky overhead while a grey Heron lifted from the water and squawked in disgust as it flew off to find somewhere else to have a quiet fish.

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23rd June 2018 / 9.30am – 3pm / 23 C

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A beautiful morning, the sun already hot in cloudless blue skies, a gentle, fresh breeze – a perfect day for an Otter hunt!  The river was quiet and tranquil and no ripples disturbed the glossy, celandine yellow cups of the water lilies floating on the surface.

Our first site had hundreds of minnows and midges, a moorhen with two noisily cheeping fluffy chicks, butterflies, dragonflies and damselflies and even mink scat, both fresh and old, but no signs of Otter.  Eventually, when we had almost given up, our persistence was rewarded, one recent Otter spraint, crayfish remains and a single pad mark in the soft mud near the fishing platform.  Under the bridge showed even more activity, lots of spraint, anal jelly and more crayfish remains – all the signs of a good feast.

The beach was a wild tangle of  flowering plants and trees; water mint, purple splashes of flowering tufted vetch, reeds, feathery grasses, hot pink red campion and white umbelifers, willow boughs and hawthorn branches through which Meadow Brown and Red Admiral butterflies competed with brilliant blue Banded Demoiselles displaying the distinctive dark thumb prints on their wings, and flashing iridescent green Beautiful Demoiselles, fluttering up and down in great profusion.  We also got our first sighting this year of a sky blue male Emperor dragonfly, hawking over the grassy bank along with several Common Darters.  While a Raven croaked and wheeled and a Buzzard mewed and circled overhead, we searched among the sun bleached stones at the water’s edge and found more and more signs of an Otter’s visit – recent spraint, anal jelly and yet more crayfish remains.

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As we walked across the pasture to our next site passed hedgerows filled with the tall upright stalks of hogweed and cow parsley, arcs of dog rose and skeins of honeysuckle we watched another Buzzard being harried by a Kestrel and a Little Egret rising regally from the river bank, his snow-white feathers in stark contrast to the smokey-grey of the two Herons which joined him.

The river is narrow and fast here, tumbling over stones, the deep water rippling and splashing and flashing in the current, and it seemed right that it was here that we heard the sharp warning – peep peep – as the explosive flash of turquoise and orange of a Kingfisher shot past on his way to the slower stretches of water to fish.

Lots of Otter activity on the beach as well as among the large stones on the bend of the river, multiple spraint in both places together with anal jelly and crayfish remains, including a whole arm and claw.  A Mallard, half hidden by the reeds, kept her brood of four ducklings well into the backwater and a single swan drifted disdainfully passed with no sign of the female or any cygnet from the nest we spotted on our last visit, which perhaps haven’t yet hatched.

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Only a few damselflies and no dragonflies along this stretch but there were Large Whites, Speckled Woods, Tortoiseshells and lots of Meadow Brown butterflies as well as large parties of Long-Tailed Tits and Great Tits flying up into the branches of the trees and the air was filled with the chatter of Jackdaws and Wood Pigeons.  The very dry, sun- baked mud path was crossed with ever-widening cracks, but the ground beside it proved a perfect situation for rock roses, mallow, corn chamomile and a visiting Scarlet Tiger Moth.

No signs of any activity at the next beach where we usually see lots of spraint but this could be due to a wide area of green algal bloom covering the water – it certainly looked scummy and uninviting.  We were more fortunate at the next bridge which was very open, treeless with no herbage to distract us so we contented ourselves with watching the Swallows swooping low over the fields and perching on the telegraph wires, the White doves flying around the farm buildings and the Little Egret and two Herons stalking the shallows.

11th June 2018

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A perfect summer’s afternoon – blue skies, warm sun, fresh breeze, a Kingfisher flashing downstream, Beautiful and Banded Demoiselle Damselflies in abundance and the first sighting of a number of Common Blues, several mating – halcyon days.

There were still a few Mayflies rising from the water, lots of bees and an American Signal Crayfish crawling around in the shallow water on the edge of the river.  Only the occasional butterfly, Large Whites and a Peacock but no others and no signs of Otters today on either the gravel beach, the little beach or the weir.

Clouds of white flowering umbelifers all along the bank, including Hogweed, Giant Hogweed, Pignut, False Parsley and Cow Parsley, lots of bright pink Campion with beautiful falls of pale pink Dog Roses and heavily scented Elderflower and splashes of brilliant yellow Stonecrop clinging to the sides of the weir.  The air was filled with the sounds of Blackbirds and Wrens singing in the trees, the ubiquitous wood pigeons cooing incessantly and the buzz of bees.

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We were fortunate to meet Kevin a keen fisherman who was a fount of local knowledge of the river.  He had seen a female Otter with two cubs last year as well as Mink, but was much more interested in the very large Chubb which he had just spotted lurking in the deep water close to the bank which he thought was at least five pounds plus in weight and the mass of five hundred or so spawning Chubb on this stretch of the River a couple of weeks ago.  He had also seen Dippers on the shallow stony stretch under the bridge, yet another confirmation of the purity of the River; we had often seen Dippers farther downstream but never around here, so it was really good to know they are here.

23rd May 2018    /    9.30am – 2.45pm / 12.5 C – 19.5 C / 53.5 F – 67 FDSCN3998.JPG

There are days and there is, as Lou Reed sang, A Perfect Day which must surely include a beautiful day in May wandering through river meadows in warm sunshine, when the blossom on the wild flowers, trees and hedgerows are at their flawless best, damselflies are fluttering among the reeds, mayflies rise from the river, and when swifts speed, swerve and turn high in the bluest of blue skies overhead in their never-ending attempt to catch insects on the wing – what joy!

The morning was unpromising, cloudy with a chill, strong wind, but the country lane was so quiet and serene that little by little we were seduced into forgetting the weather and just glory in verges filled with gypsy’s lace in full summer bloom, thick with deep scented flowers, shaded by branches of newly opened Hawthorn blossom and sprinkled with deep blue birds eye speedwell.

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We climbed over the old wooden stile into the river meadow, knee-high with summer grass, buttercups, stitchwort and red Campion.  As we walked towards the river, we could hear and eventually see the massive harvesters in an adjoining field working their way in perfect symmetry down the meadow cutting and stacking the grass in long fat snakes, followed by the smaller tractors and trailers, completing in an afternoon what in years gone by would have taken weeks.Red_Kite_lr.jpg

In the sky above hung the raptors, circling slowly on the thermals, heads down, eyes fiercely concentrated on the thick lines of hay, hoping to spot a harvest mice, vole, any small mammals or a ground nesting bird running, scampering away to escape the sharp blades of the harvester.  The count was astonishing:  ten Buzzards, two Peregrine Falcons and two Red Kites, all hungry for prey which proved to be pretty elusive.

Red Kite – Rebecca Muirhead

As we searched the muddy edges of the gravel beaches, around the roots of trees, on logs and boulders and along ditches for signs of Otter spraint, padding or fish or crayfish remains, it was easy to be distracted by the brilliant metallic blue bodied Banded Demoiselle, the pale blue White-Legged damselflies, and the flash of copper-bronze winged Beautiful Demoiselles, both immature males with the blue bodies and green bodied females  in uncountable numbers in amongst the water plants edging the river.

We found both fresh and old Otter spraint on flat stones near the river edge and  so were not surprised when a man walking along the opposite river bank said he had seen a mother and cub swimming downriver only a week ago on this stretch of water.  The water crowfoot, not yet in flower, trailed its long vivid green tresses to ripple in the brisk current on the broad gravelly shallow river bed from where every few seconds yet another dun, an ephemera Danica Mayfly lifted up from its long two-year immersion to float free for a day, an hour, a few seconds dependent upon wind blowing it off course or a hungry rising trout’s mouth preventing it mating or laying its eggs before dying.

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A brilliant turquoise rifle shot exploded past, barely seen, as a Kingfisher flashed down river while a beautifully lazy Little Egret snowy white and elegant lifted herself and flapped slowly away to perch in a nearby tree.   Orange Tip Butterflies, Red Admirals and Large Whites were busily feeding amongst the red campion, cow parsley, hemlock water dropwort, comfrey, herb Robert and dog roses which edged the river banks and a large light coloured Grey Heron hunched stock still in the shallows patiently hoping for a kill.

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We met a man who had been checking his American Signal crayfish traps (for which he held an Environment Agency licence).  He usually caught around 30 crayfish at each site during the season which lasted until August.  He hadn’t seen any Otters but had seen lots of brown trout and roach and had  noticed crayfish remains left by feasting Otters which we had also seen under the bridge and on the beach in the adjoining field.  His companion who spent some time in Bath while researching his doctorate on climate change had often watched Otters playing in the River Avon but had never seen them along the Frome.

We were weary at the end of our stint – climbing stiles, wriggling under bridges and tramping mile after mile along the river banks but it was a good weariness and we were content to saunter back through the afternoon’s sunshine pleased with our count and blessed to be able to enjoy such a wonderful stretch of river.   So, with many apologies to Leigh Hunt for messing with his famous poem: Say we’re weary, say we’re sad,  Say that health and wealth have miss’d us, Say we’re growing old, but add, this day kissed us!

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Drenching rain and strong cold north-easterly winds didn’t dampen our determination to get to know our patch of the River Frome and examine it thoroughly as part of our first two-day survey for the Somerset Otter Group, although, discretion being the better part of valour, we took a carefully considered joint decision not to enter the field containing a very large, very magnificent looking bull who showed rather too much interest in our presence!  We hurriedly skirted the field beyond the wire whilst keeping a careful watch on him and his altogether more docile looking harem of fifteen young heifers, and walked on to the next site.

This is an event which takes place annually when volunteers check all the rivers in Somerset for signs of otters as well as reporting any sightings of Dippers, Kingfishers, Water voles, Goosanders, Herons, Egrets, Dabchicks and Mink all of which indicate the health of the river system.  Dippers are especially indicative of water quality and a good bug life.  The Somerset Otter Group works in association with Somerset Environmental Records Centre (SERC) and Cardiff University.

After hours of clambering over stiles, wading through knee-high grass and slithering and sliding under bridges, we were rewarded with fresh spraint and padding on one site and recent spraint on another on the first day and fresh spraint at yet another site on the second day, all encouraging signs of an otter being active in our patch.

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We were disappointed not to see our usual Kingfishers and Little Egrets, which had no doubt found somewhere warm and dry to sit out the truly awful weather, but we did see a Heron, a Cormorant, a pair of Canada Geese, 5 Mandarin Duck, 3 Mallard and a pair of Swans (the female on the nest).  We didn’t see any water voles, those shyest of creatures, but we saw several banks peppered with what we believed were their holes, but always bearing in mind Tony House’s caution that both American crayfish and Mink have been recorded using/adapting water voles’ burrows.

We were pleased to see a good harvest of garlic mustard this year which should please orange-tip butterflies looking to lay their eggs, as well as dove’s foot cranesbill, ground-ivy, lady’s smock, cow parsley, white dead nettle, ramson, red campion, lords and ladies, comfrey and buttercups, daisies and dandelions galore scattered across every field we crossed.

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The blackthorn was in full flower along the banks of the river, the willows flaunted their beautiful new soft green leaves and despite the rain tiny Wrens as well as Crows, Jackdaws, Wood Pigeons and Blackbirds  were still going about their business and one Pheasant managed to make himself a snug roost which offered some protection from the strong, biting wind.

19th April 2018 – Temperature: 22 C

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No signs of otter spraint or padding; there were the dried hairy remains of what might have been old mink spraint, but although the overnight rain had provided good of padding possibilities, the beaches showed only bird and dog tracks.

It was very quiet along the river apart from the sound of two Greater Spotted Woodpeckers drumming in the woods echoing across the water meadows, and from the trees along the banks, the twitterings and tweetings of lots of Tits, Robins and Blackbirds.  We saw a couple of moorhens on the river, a sharp warning shriek alerted us to the brief brilliant sight of a Kingfisher flashing past upstream, a pair of graceful Little Egrets making their stately way along the shallows before lifting effortlessly and flying downstream out of sight and of course we heard the ubiquitous Wood Pigeons in full voice.   We were pleased to see that the single Little Egret which had been alone here at this stretch of the river for so many years had at last acquired a mate.

The Blackthorn had formed a riot of frothing white blossom promising a good sloe season in the autumn, there were enormous great clumps of marsh marigolds, striking in the sunlight, garlic mustard, red dead nettle, lady’s smock, lesser celandine, fools water cress, water forget-me-not, and dandelion scattered along the banks.

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15th April 2018: 10am – 1.30pm

We travelled to Glastonbury to meet up with Jo Pearse our S.O.G. trainer who gave a thorough explanation of the health and safety aspects of surveying, together with methodology and some basic ecology before we and the six other trainees followed Jo through the marshes of Sharpham Moor searching under bridges and along the banks for any signs of otters.

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Despite the cold driving rain and strong blustery winds, we saw lots of spraint, otter slides and tunnels which otters make through the undergrowth to the water’s edge.  It was extremely informative and an extra bonus to hear a Water Rail, Blackcap and Cetti’s Warbler and to see Heron, a group of Swallows and a small herd of eight or so Roe Deer grazing together on one of the marsh islands.

5th April 2018: 10am – 12.30pm

We have volunteered to survey a stretch of the River Frome for the Somerset Otter Group which isn’t presently being checked.  As we are complete novices, we were very fortunate that Anthony House, a committee member who has been surveying and recording otters for more than twenty years agreed to show us the ropes.  Not surprisingly his knowledge and expertise is prodigious and as we walked the course, he pointed out the areas where we could expect to see spraint (scat), tracks, slides and scrapes if an otter was active in the area.  He explained that spraint is often deposited on prominent features like rocks, fallen trees, bridge supports and storm drains and that the deposits act as scent markers to other otters and are used to define territories.

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We couldn’t have wished for a better day for our search – the sun was warm, the skies a cloudless blue and the breeze slight and fresh as we clambered over stiles, peered under bridges, pushed our way through thickets and wandered beside the river which was in full fast spate after weeks of constant rainfall.  Eventually, to the great delight of us all, we came across a small silted beach where there was not only clear spore but also a patch of anal jelly, the two together a clear confirmation of otter presence.

We look forward to our half-day training session with Jo Pearse at the Somerset Levels and hope one day we will also be lucky enough to actually see a local otter!

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LIST OF SPECIES

[Sighted along the surveyed stretch of the River Frome]

Animals:    Brown Hare, Hedgehog (droppings) #Otter, #Fox, #Mink, #Chubb, Brown Trout, Common Bullhead (Miller’s Thumb), Roach, Minnow, Freshwater Shrimp, Water Hog-louse, American Signal Crayfish.

Butterflies, Dragonflies, Damselflies and Insects:  Hornet Moth (Nationally Scarce (Nationally Notable) B), Grass Moth (possibly Agriphila straminella), Scarlet Tiger Moth, Garden Tiger Moth; Common Blue, Marbled White, Orange Tip (f), Brimstone, Green Veined White, Large White, Small Heath, Comma, Peacock, Red Admiral, Small Tortoiseshell, Speckled Wood Butterflies.

Common Darter Dragonfly, Brown Hawker Dragonfly, Emperor Dragonfly, Azure Damselfly Common Blue Damselfly, Banded Demoiselle Damselfly (M&F), Beautiful Demoiselle Damselfly (M&F), White-Legged Damselfly (M)

Dark Bush Cricket (F), Common Green Grasshopper,  Red-Headed Cardinal Beetle, Two-Spot Ladybird, Asian Lady Ladybird (Harlequin), 24 Spot Ladybird, Common Wasp, Red Tailed Bumble bee, Buff Tailed Bumble bee, Longhorn Beetle, Knot Grass Leaf Beetle, Mint Leaf Beetle, St Mark’s Fly, Hornet, Pond Skater, Robin’s Pincushion (Rose Bedeguar Gall wasp)

Birds:    #Dipper, Kingfisher, Little Egret, Grey Heron, Snipe, Goosander, Mandarin Duck, Moorhen, Garganey, Canada Goose, Mute Swan, Mallard, Pied Wagtail, Grey Wagtail, Yellow Hammer, Goldfinch,  House Martin, Swift, Swallow, Chaffinch, Song Thrush, Blackbird, Magpie, Wren, Carrion Crow, Jackdaw, Wood Pigeon, Green Woodpecker, Greater Spotted Woodpecker, Red Kite, Raven, Buzzard, Peregrine Falcon, Sparrowhawk, Kestrel.

Plants:   Yellow Water Lily, Corn Chamomile, Rock Rose, Common Mallow, Water Crowfoot, Spiked Water Milfoil, Fools Parsley, Black Mustard, Brook Lime, Saracen’s Woundwort, Hemlock Water Dropwort, Cow Parsley, Crosswort, Dove’s Foot Cranesbill, Water Forget-me-Not, Tufted Vetch, Yellow Flag Iris, Meadow Cranesbill, Angelica, Purple and White Comfrey, Mares Tail, Stitchwort, Ground Ivy,  Bugle, Marsh Marigold, Lesser Celandine, Meadow Buttercup, Red Campion, Bird’s Eye Speedwell, White Dead Nettle, Red Dead Nettle, Red Clover, White Clover, Dandelion, Garlic Mustard, Lady’s Smock, Fools Watercress, Watercress, Common Daisy, Herb Robert, Bramble, Watermint, Ivy, Common Nettle, Shepherd’s Rod, Purple Loosestrife, Yarrow, Wild Marjoram, Hedge Woundwort, Tansy, Branched Bur-Reed, Unbranched Bur-Reed, Himalayan Balsam, Yellow Stonecrop, Field Bindweed, Creeping Cinquefoil, Teasel, Great Willow-herb, Scentless Mayweed, Bulrush (Common Reedmace), Burdock, Fat Hen, Common Reed, Soft Rush, Common Club-rush, Reed Canary-grass, Reed Sweet Grass, Crescent Cup Liverwort, Amphibious Bistort, Water Speedwell, Fennel Pondweed, Shepherd’s Rod, Common Ragwort, Hemp Agrimony, Sheeps Sorrel, Spear Thistle, Creeping Thistle, Water Figwort, Common Duckweed, Silverweed, Redshank, Gypsywort, Common Valerian, Lords & Ladies, Lady’s Bedstraw, Harts Tongue fern, Old Man’s Beard, Vervain.
Trees, Shrubs:   Norway Maple, Snowberry, Black Poplar, Blackthorn, Hawthorn, Elder, Alder, Goat Willow, Crack Willow, Weeping Willow, Common Osier, White Poplar, Ash, Field Maple, Larch, Sycamore, Horse Chestnut, Oak.

# Sighted by Others

 

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