Wild Waterway

The 27 mile long Somerset River Frome rises near Witham Friary, gathers smaller rivers and tributaries along the way before flowing through the town of Frome and on to Freshford where it joins the Bristol Avon. This blog and records cover a stretch of  the river which we survey and record as part of the Somerset Otter Group’s local team.  Somerset Otter Group

Record what’s there, not what’s Rare

A memorable aphorism which Chris du Feu, a naturalist with iRecord, first heard over 45 years ago from his friend and mentor John McMeeking, who was instrumental in forming the Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust.

Otter (Lutra lutra): Somerset River Frome / copyright : Nathan Slee, Creator of Frome Wildlife Watch https://www.facebook.com/groups/

28th June 2022 / Temp: 17.5 C / Water Level : Low

A wild and windy morning, the branches thrashing and creaking but the river meadow was blessedly free from cattle so we didn’t have to keep a weather eye out for the bull and could take our time examining the river bank for Otter signs.

The mats of water lilies were looking quite stunning – the flower heads newly opened, each one a perfect specimen – an absolute delight! The Meadowsweet, wild Watercress and Water Forget-me-not was in full flower along the river and carrier stream margins which was lovely to see, particularly as the wind had frightened off all but a handfull of damselflies, Common Blue and Banded Demoiselles, one solitary Brown Hawker dragonfly and a few Small Tortoisesheel butterflies.

Ispot is such a blessing. I posted several insects and flowers, amongst them this furry beastie with its head buried in a bramble flower confident that it was a buff-tailed bumblebee. Wrong! It was corrected to a Bumblebee Hoverfly – how careful one has to be not to see a common insect and jump to conclusions!

Bumblebee Hoverfly (Volucella bombylons)

Not a single water bird on the river – it always catches us out every year, that period when the birds are moulting after the nesting period and keep out of sight until their new feathers have grown. The seasons move on almost without our noting the passing days, we turn and it is high summer already! We did at least hear a few birds – Crow, Wood Pigeons, a Common Whitethroat (which I always refer to as “Five Go Mad in Somerset” due to its frantic mangled song!) and a couple of Wrens but the strong blustery wind kept them hunkered down amongst the thick undergrowth of the hedgerow or hidden in the protection of the trees, heavy with summer leaf.

Hornet Mimic Hoverfly (Volucella zonaria)

A few surprising awaited us at the last survey site. Recent spraint under the bridge and this large, dark almost orange and black striped hornet mimic hoverfly – a first sighting along the river – a magnificent wee beastie!!

22nd June 2022 / Temp 20.5 C / Water Level: Low

We arrived to see 4, 7, 9 no 11 Swallows swooping down over the river meadows and up again, travelling at top speed and no hesitation straight under the roof of the barn – presumably lingingering long enough to stuff a few beaks before out they came again, to repeat the same same-devil manoeuvre – the Swallows have nestlings!

17th June 2022 / Temp: 24.5C / Water Level: Low

Water Figwort

There are few wild flowers which are more beautiful than Water Figwort and it was an absolute delight to see a row of plants self-seeded in a line along the open culvert. The colour is so striking, a deep blood red with the deep cream centre wide open.

The rounded top petals are like the open lids of a pot revealing the pollen coated four fertile stamens huddled in a rectangle in the lower half of the flower. They are always a joy to see but particularly today, on such a beautifully hot summer’s day of cloudless blue skies and still fresh green leaves shading the river and offering pools of perfect cool out of the intense heat of the sun.

As we checked the beach we were astonished to find only recent Otter spraint, after months of so much spraint both from the female Otter and her cub we expected today to be no different but it appears they have both gone on a wander, as is the wont with Otters, but who knows where! What made it all the more perplexing was the amount of fresh spraint we found under the bridge close by only two days ago. However we were glad of an opportunity to take advantage of the shade by double-checking all their favourite stones and grass tufts and beach edge before venturing out into the full sun again.

Opium Poppies (Papaver somniferum)

When we came up to the wild rockery it was to find a wonderful display of wild poppies replacing the Mayfly strewn plants of barely a month ago. Today there wasn’t a single Mayfly to be seen either by the river or on the plants – it was as if the frenzied blitz of thousands of riverflies had never existed! In fact there were few insects about at all – around half a dozen or so Banded Demoiselle, about the same number of Common Blue damselfies and a couple of Beautiful Demoiselle were all that there we could see. A handful of Meadow Brown and Small Tortoiseshell butterflies and just three or four Speckled Woods along the whole of the river bank – maybe a lull between broods.

Sulphur Pearl Moth

But we did manage to catch sight of a small, fluttering moth, in amongst the grasses. By its pattern and behaviour resting along a grass we believed it might be a Sulphur Pearl moth which although it is a night time moth, does appear during the day to feel on umbellifers of which there were uncountable numbers lining the river bank.

It was glorious to be walking through the river meadows, thick with waving grasses already in seed, listening to the Blackbirds, a pair of Chaffinches, Wrens, Magpies, a few Crows and the jack jack jack of Jawdaws calling down as they flew overhead. We only spotted one pair of Mallard, a single Little Egret which we disturbed as we climbed downn to the beach but then caught sight of a flash of blue as a Kingfisher appeared and we were able to watch it flying inches above the water downstream until it was lost to sight at the bend of the river – a truly halcyon day!

15th June 2022 / 19 C / Water Level : Low

The Meterological Office have promised that this could be the hottest day of the year – not the best time to be walking across unshaded river meadows or clambering up and down river banks so we decided a very early start would be the best solution. And what a treat awaited us. The air felt fresh, the sun warm, the river sparkled and the meadows were thick with all the umbellifers awash with full summer flowering – quite magical. To raise our spirits still further, at our first survey site we spotted 4 fresh and 5 recent Otter spraint, bright orange-red and crammed as always in summer with crayfish remains.

Banded Demoiselle, Common Blue and Beautiful Demoiselle damselflies flitted all around us as we checked the stones, and we even caught sight of a Brown Hawker dragonfly – our first of the summer!

Corky-fruited Water Dropwort

A glorious sight greeted us as we walked through the river meadows – the sun pouring down on to all of the wild flowers along the edge of the hay fields – the Corky-fruited Water Dropwort, Moon Daisies, Cow Parsley looking newly opened, the Timothy and so many other grasses swaying in the light breeze, a wonderfully uplifting sight to behold!

Moon Daisies

Seeing the mass of Moon Daisies makes us long to return at night to see if in such profusion they live up to their name – glowing in the dark! While on the steep sloping banks of the weir the clumps of Biting Stonecrop glowed sunshine yellow among the scattered vivid violet-blue flowers of the Meadow Cranesbill and Self-heal.

Who couldn’t be happy on this best of all possible midsummer mornings, walking along a river bank, seeing the fall of pink field roses coating a tree, the sparkle of the sunlight on the river and the flash of brilliant blue, black-blue, iridescent golden-green bodies and wings of passing damselfies!

A similar story awaited us when we reached the wide, stony beach – a veritable jungle of flowering plants, some even taller than us (and my husband is 6ft 4ins!) covering almost every inch. Reed Canary grass along the river’s edge, thickets of Hemlock Water Dropwort rather surprisingly offering nectar to hoverflies and butterflies alike, Red Campion, Hogweed, Nettles, Hedge Mustard, brambles, Teasels and tall grasses fighting for space, shaded in parts by the remains of the ancient Willow one of whose large branches, split during one of the named winter storms, still lying in full leaf at the rear of the beach.

A Beautiful Demoiselle (surely wrongly named in this instance) had caught and was slowly demolishing the delicate, most beautiful Yellow May, a rather scarce Mayfly along this section of the river amongst the profusion of the masses of Ephemera Danica.

11th June 2022 / Temp: 19C

Spring fed Trickle

Two clear days without rain as a prerequisite for Otter surveys can be challenging in the south west of England as the warm Atlantic winds make landfall into the prevailing wind from the south-west so we get a good deal of rain. Despite dry sunny days being promised, the rain fell and plans had been thwarted again and again for more than two weeks so we decided to explore the spring fed trickle feeding the carrier stream which drains into the river.

Hemlock Water-dropwort

Summer growth had produced a veritable wall of large, tall Hemlock Water-dropwort, their heads thick with white balls of blossom a delight for pollen loving hoverflies, but these together with the brambles heavy with still tightly sheathed buds made any exploration of the stream extremely difficult, as barbs caught and tore our clothes and hair at every step. It wasn’t made any easier by the deep cattle hoof prints in the rain softened mud along the very narrow edges of the trickle. Sadly, after so much effort there was little to show for our trouble – a few wandering pond snails, a good number of freshwater shrimps was the sum of our finds, despite searching the water carefully. No sign of any cased caddisfly or any other invertebrates found in the water at our last exploration that we could see. However, we determined to come back at the next opportunity with a pair of secateurs to clear a path of thick bramble to allow us to follow the trickle to its source.

Longhorn Beetle

A vivid red longhorn beetle caught the eye, but true to this rather frustrating afternoon, it was determinedly exploring the Water-dropwort and bramble just too high for my camera to focus and what was worse it decided to play hide and seek every time I was able to manouvre into a decent position to capture a decent image!

Red Longhorn Beetle (Stenocorus meridinus)

However, the image was just sufficient to identify the longhorn beetle as Stenocorus meridanus which appears in bright sunlight in June-July to feed on the pollen of, among other plants, umbelifers! The hosts of these insects are often conifers but also deciduous trees like the mature Ash tree dominating the edge of the trickle. Steven Falk in his excellent paper “A Review of the Pollinators Associated with Decaying Wood……” mentions Hemlock Water-dropwort as one of the umbelifers Stonocorus meridinus will feed on. This is a new species for us, so the exploration of the area was not completely wasted.

Immature Common Blue Damselfly

We saw a number of damselflies, both Banded and Beautiful Demoiselles and this beautifully delicate Common Blue. We also noticed lots of very tall Pendulous Sedge plants intermingled with the Water-dropwort, which we discovered can be a sign of ancient woodland – rather surprisingly.

Before leaving the spring-fed trickle, we took the opportunity to test the water and found that the Nitrate level was 0 but the Phosphate level was still 2.0, matching most of the river level. We haven’t been able to establish whether the outflow from Orchardleigh Lake which according to the maps drains into this trickle – bearing in mind the treated sewage from the golf club drains into the lake might be the cause of the raised Phosphates or whether the source of contaminate is the cattle. Most likely a combination of the two.

28th May 2022 / Temp: 16.5-17C / Water Level : Med-Low

Beautifully quiet afternoon and from “The View from the Bridge” the river looked spectacular, flat and calm, reflecting the blue sky and drifting clouds  with the small huddle of ruminating heifers reassuringly surrounding the bull tight enough for us to venture along the river bank to check for Otter spraint!  Sadly not a sign along the whole stretch of river, but we did see a female Mallard with 5 duckling and 2 Canada Geese  Surprisingly only a handful of mayflies rising and only one spotted resting on a riverside plant.

Yellow Water Lilies

Lovely to see the Yellow Water lilies coming into flower and to note the large rubbery leaves where we spotted three Common Blue damselflies.   This is the spot which we hope will soon show good numbers of Red Eyed Damselflies, the only place we know where they can be seen.  

Yellow Flag Iris

There was a good show of Yellow Flag Iris this year along the border of the small feeder stream, standing proud amidst a tangle of white umbellifer (probably cow parsley), buttercups and white dead nettle.

We heard a Green Woodpecker, Buzzard and Song Thrush as well as several Blackbirds and two Jackdaws, saw a Little Egret flying over and two male Mallard but surprisingly perhaps very few insects bar a couple of desultory bees – maybe they we arrived just as they were settling down to their afternoon nap!!

We arrived at the second site just in time to catch sight of a Grey Wagtail fishing enthusiastically from a waterlogged branch caught in the river – a brilliant perch from which to spot any signs of activity in the water.

As if the Otters wanted us to know they are still about, we spotted two fresh and 1 recent spraint plus crayfish remains and pearls on the stones by the river and under the  bridge pier.  We also heard our resident Wren giving voice at top volume and a Chaffinch trying, and succeeding, in competing!  All’s well along the river, looking so beautiful and serene.

27TH May 2022 / Temp: 16 C / Water Level: Med-Low

A flock of Lesser Black-Backed Gulls

We arrived at the survey site as the Swallows were swooping down from their nests and zooming low over the river meadow, up into the sky, down again then up, up, up and whizzing full tilt into one of the five nests under the roof of the barn – a wonderful sight, redolent of summer!  Not so welcome was a Sparrowhawk which the farmer had seen diving out of the sky to catch Swallows and his White Doves.  However, he seemed pretty unconcerned as the White Doves were becoming too many so the hawks were performing a service in keeping the numbers down.

It was hay-making time and as usual the sky was alive with raptors swirling around above the machines covering a large space as they searched for prey!  We counted Five Buzzards and two Red Kites chasing the haymakers and on the ground after the tractors had left there were about twenty-five or so Lesser Black-Backed Gulls, Jackdaws and Crows well spread-out, feasting on the fallen seeds and insects. 

Brooklime

In the shallow water of the carrier stream the Brooklime was coming into flower and as we walked the banks we could hear but not see the Mallard squawking and complaining loudly under the arched stone bridge.  Wild Angelica, Red Campion and Cow Parsley were the only plants along the  stream which were in flower, it needs another month before they reach their full glory but they were already attracting a few damselflies, bees and hoverflies.

Beautiful Demoiselle damselfly

When we reached the beach we were pleased to find both fresh and recent Otter spraint and watched a number of both Banded Demoiselle and Beautiful Demoiselle flitting about the riverside plants, a Small White butterfly, disturbing a couple of female Pheasants who left surprisingly quietly, not making their usual noisy complaints.

A Heron flew off as we walked to the next site, about five Mandarin flew down to the water from the river bank but the Mallard stayed put on the grass.  Blackbirds singing from the hedgerow, a Magpie cackled and chattered and a Kingfisher zoomed past, heading downriver.

Mating swarm of non-biting midges

We were immediately struck when we reached the river at the last site by the incredible number of mating, non-biting midges swarming above the water.  These tiny flies do not feed, they only live long enough to mate, lay eggs, and die, but the fish beneath seemed oblivious – maybe having gorged on mayflies they simply weren’t hungry enough to leap for the midges!

More good signs of fresh and recent Otter spraint along the stones of the beach, damselflies, a Red Admiral and only one mayfly rising from the water and resting.

Green Drake (Ephemera danica)

The beach is always protected from the wind, which was surprisingly cool and quite strong, so it was delightful to wander about, checking for spraint in the warmth of the brilliant sunshine, watching the Long-tailed Tits flitting from tree to tree, Swallows swooping overhead and listening to songs and calls of Whitethroats, Chiffchaffs and Chaffinches whilst enjoying the delightful sound and sight of a busy river, rushing, sparkling and splashing over stones in its constant dash downriver.

24th May 2022

Female Mandarin with duckling copyright: Lindy Whitehouse Phd

Our Angler friend has also alerted us to a behaviour which I have not witnessed but which my husband tells me is quite common among wildfowl and other birds. The Angler writes that the two female Mandarin he has seen on the river appear to have amalgamated their broods. Evidently one female (which is darker than the other) is hanging out with the drake, without ducklings, and the other female now has 9!

There are several hypotheses why this occurs, it could be that two females join forces which improves their own probability of survival by sharing the demands of brood-rearing with other adults, which in turn increases their reproductive output. Another is that survival of young is higher in large, amalgamated broods, which provide greater protection from predators and access to food supplies. Our research doesn’t offer an explanation of a flighty female dumping her ducklings and swimming off with a male duck!!

23rd May 2022 / Temp : 16.5 C / Water Level: Med

OTTER NEWS – LATEST

Otter (Lutra lutra) and pup – copyright remains with the Angler who provided the photograph

Huge reluctance to move after a pretty exhausting weekend and only the threat of days of heavy rain forced us out. Trudging along to the first Otter site, convinced that, after the bumper sightings on our last survey, we would see nothing but – there they were – scattered acrossed the beach on 6 different stones and tufts of grass 6 fresh Otter spraint and 6 recent!

What made this particular find exciting was the confirmation (not that one was needed) from an Angler’s sightings over the past couple of months (Frome & District Angling Association) https://www.fadaa.uk/ In April, around the time of the Group’s annual 2 Day Event, he saw a female Otter and pup (who stay with their mother for the first year) foraging for crayfish, crunching away at the female’s catch on the shallow bank of the river and, as it grew darker and they swam off downstream, making bird-like, whistling signal calls to each other. It must have been a wonderful moment and we were extremely envious but felt consoled knowing that we now had hard evidence of what we suspected given the amount of spraint we had found, there were indeed a mother and pup along this stretch of the river!

The icing on the cake came yesterday when the same Angler reported again seeing a female Otter and cub this time downstream from the April sighting but not too far as an Otter swims where he believes there is probably a holt.

Amongst his other sightings of Heron, Little Egret, Mandarin (with 4 ducklings) and nesting Kingfisher, the Angler also spotted a female Goosander with five ducklings! We haven’t seen a Goosander along this stretch of water for years so five new additions to the river is extremely welcome news.

INTENSE HATCHES – MID-MAY ONWARDS

Yellow May (Heptagenia sulphurea)

When fly fishermen talk about “intense hatches” we now know what they mean – and how! Coming up from the river we walked into an absolute blizzard of Mayflies. The so called Green Drake (Ephemera danica) had arrived mob handed. Apart from film of locusts in Africa, we had never seen so many insects in the air at the same time – it was an astonishing spectacle. What we had thought were great numbers only a week ago on another site downriver was put into the shade by today’s display. The owner and his assistant who were working on site stopped to chat and when we commented on the number of mayfly he said that earlier in the morning he was astonished to see a large Pike jumping out of the water after the Mayflies. He also said that at dusk he watches the bats around his house and barn feeding on them too.

Walking past a wild area of flowering comfrey, wild mustard and nettles we noticed that barely an inch of stem or leaf was free from resting mayfly – the vast majority Green Drake, but also our very first sighting of live Yellow May (we counted at least eight in our short stop) as well what we think may well have been Blue Winged Olive, (Sherry Spinners).

This is the area where the owner sees a large grass snake sunbathing so we intend to keep a look-out in future. This is the time of year we have seen grass snakes swimming in the river, but never so far in this spot.

14th May 2022 / Temp: 16.5 C / Water Level: Low

A perfect May afternoon, clear air, deep blue skies, all the trees dressed in new leaf and the river meadow carpeted with buttercups and cow parsley. All those long dark months of autumn and the cold grey days of winter seemed a distant memory which happened in a country far away, for here all is warmth and beauty, filled with male bird-song from nesting birds.

Sauntering along the river bank, stopping to admire the yellow crosswort (or smooth bedstraw, a member of the coffee family) just breaking into flower among the brilliant blue birdseye speedwell sprinkled among the tall grasses where many tightly budded Corky-fruited Water-dropwort stood erect, waiting for their spectacular debut not too many weeks away. While standing admiring and looking down into the river we suddenly began to see them, first one the another….

the damselflies had arrived! Fluttering along the river and settlingon the riverside plants in numbers. As fast as we counted them more appeared, the numbers jumping from three to seven to ten until we reached fifteen altogether! Twelve Beautiful Demoiselle, male and female and three Banded Demoiselle. This is summer arriving with a spectacular fanfare, a blaze of bronze and green and blue, vivid and sparkling in the sunlight.

Shoal of Common Minnow

When we reached the beach filled with tall pink flowering red campion and delicate white cow parsley, the old gnarled willow covered with fresh new leaves and the river dancing and sparkling in the sunlight we spotted shoals of minnows in the shallow stony edge of the river. We were intrigued by the way they flashed white and scarlet and when our daughter managed to fish one out, we could examine it closely. We can’t do better than include a comment from Steve Smailes when we posted the photograph on iSpot :

Lovely photo and Nostalgic too. The male minnow in May / June is probably my favourite creature on earth, and that’s saying a bit. Most people in modern times are unaware of it (even naturalists!) – shown a picture they might guess at coral reefs and tropical seas.

It would be nearly 60 years ago now that I waded into a fast, mossy, cobbly run in my local brook. (This was in Derbyshire.) The water over-topped my little wellies. It surged on into a large, deep pool, but by some good luck I didn’t. I swept the net down through the rapid and lifted it to find, and feel the weight of, a mass of squirming, bejewelled fishes which I had never guessed were there. All were male minnows, gorgeous bottle greens and yellows, flagged with white and trimmed with scarlet and coal-black.

While nothing can compete with the delight of discovery of a small boy, we were pretty astounded by the striking coloours of this, one of the most common fish in English waters.

Ephemera danica

How lovely to start seeing Mayflies in numbers! The earliest we have seen a hatch in previous years was the 10th May so the 14th is not that later. When we arrived we saw just a few rising but as the afternoon wore on the numbers started to increase and the mating dance of the males began in earnest! Impossible to count, we kept reaching a number, giving up and starting again until we abandoned the idea altogether and settled for “there are a lot of Mayfly!”

Mating dance of Mayflies

Whilst wandering around the beach, watching the Mayfly and checking the low hanging branches and tall plants for resting insects we came across this mayfly caught in a cobweb. It was fluttering wildly, and I tried to release it but there was one strand of web which seemed impssoble to break and remove. I settled the Mayfly on a plant and left it to its fate so cannot tell if it survived. At first I thought it might be a Yellow May but then checking with First Nature it also looked not unlike Baëtis fuscatus. To make matters even more murky, when we came to do a brief kick survey, we managed to find both a Yellow May nymph and a Baetis nymph so it would appear that both Mayfly are likely to be around.

Yellow May?

!10th May 2022 / Temp 16 C / Water Level: Low

No swimmers to prevent us from surveying the Otter site, but sadly a large herd of heifers and a bull had taken possession of the river meadow so, as we can no longer run as we once could, we turned again to the small stream. Although it was beautifully sunny, the breeze was quite stiff, gusting to very stiff so climbing down to the stream, which was protected by high banks and thick undergrowth, proved to be an oasis of stillness and calm – a perfect solution.

This relief turned to delight when we caught sight of a male and female Wren flying out of a bramble bush with grubs or caterpillars in their beaks and disappearing into the undergrowth only feet away where they presumably had a nest of young hungry chicks.

Perched on a felled ash trunk we had a beautiful “birds eye view” of the action and sat entranced watching the incredible speed with which the birds flew betwixt food source and nest. Despite holding the camera ready, it proved impossible to catch a good shot and this blurred image is the only one of a dozen or so which at least shows the ghost of a bird!

Wandering Snail

We didn’t have our nets and trays with us, so just checked the stream by eye and still managed to spot a few interesting finds. Not quite so many freshwater shrimps, although they were still prolific, but lots of snails, including this wandering snail settled comfortably on the stream bed next to what looked like fragments of twigs or splinters of wood.

Cased caddisfly larvae?

Very, very slowly, barely noticeably, the splinters began to move. It was so slow that I thought it must have been the current, but then it became obvious that although I couldn’t see any legs, they were moving across the bed of the stream. Could they be cased caddisfly larvae? Very likely, there is a possibility that they are Anabolia nervosa who build sand cases and glue sticks to each side to prevent Trout from swallowing them.

[Note: Sharon Flint at irecord has confirmed that these are indeed caddis larvae, but has been unable to offer any further explanation due to the photograph not offering sufficient information].

Close by we found what looked like the abandoned net of a net-spinning caddisfly larva, and although we couldn’t be entirely certain, the net was secured to a boulder and stretched between several stones, leaving a good sized opening to catch nutrients in the water.

{Note: This net has now been identified by Ian Wallace, the authority on Caddisflies at iRecord, as the snare of the Plectrocnemia Caddis (possibly conspersa) which is found in trickles where the bed of the stream is stony. This is very exciting news as it is a new species for us!]

There were three holes in the closed end, possibly from predators or larva leaving the net, difficult to say.

7th May 2022 / Temp : 20 C / Water Level: Low

Thwarted by hordes of young people swimming and picnicking from surveying the Otter sites, we made our way instead across the river meadow to check out a small feeder stream which trickles down to the river. The weather was gorgeous – warm, full sun, all the trees and shrubs covered in fresh new green leaves and the air full of butterflies, Orange Tip, Brimstone, Peacock, Marbled White and even a tiny Holly Blue up among the old ash tree beside the stream.

We had often been curious about this tiny stream and wondered whether would contain anything of interest beyond a few damselfly larvae, so we had never checked it out, concentrating on the river. But once we began to root around, we were astonished to find such a variety of invertebrates, particularly as the stream was no more than inches deep.

Rhyacophilidae

A free-swimming Caddisfly larva shared the tray with a Baetidae (Olives) Mayfly, the difference in size is really striking. Turning a few stones and rocks, we then came across this astonishing collection of caddis larvae…

Trichoptera larvae

which again look like the free-swimming species but which unfortunately we disturbed their retreat, the small cluster of tiny stones, cemented together where they hide from predators while waiting to pupate. We carefully returned the stone to the stream bed where we had found it and hoped they would find shelter before they were found by a hungry predator.

Gaerida case

This lovely little case, beautifully constructed with grains of sand with larger stones protecting the sides, by the Caddify larva Gaerida, sometimes referred to as the weighted casemaker caddis, a scraper larva, a grazer, living on the algae growing on the stones of its preferred habitat. As ever, we are most grateful to Ian Wallace of iRecord for the identification and explanation.

Potamopyrgus antipodarum?

A tiny little spire shell, possibly Jenkins Spire Snail, was another discovery, which I hope irecord will approve as I have so often hoped to find one!

It was such a beautifuly early May afternoon, and lovely to see a few butterflies, Orange Tip, Holly Blue and a Marbled White, as well as a few insects, a Cranefly, two St Mark’s flies, Alderleaf beetles, a couple of Beautiful Demoiselle damselfies and this strange looking little beast..

Platyrhinus resinosus

which we managed to identify when we to reached home as a Crampball Fungus Weevil! When back in the autumn we found a fallen branch brought down by a storm with a line of crampball fungus attached to its bark, little did we imagine that one of them might have had a small weevil growing inside!

A microlight flew back and forth above our heads a few times rather noisily, but redolant of summer and we spotted a few birds – lots of tits including at least four or five Long-Tailed Tits, and a Great Tit, a Little Egret, Jackdaws, Chaffinch, a Green Woodpecker, Blackbirds, Robins, 3 Crows and last but not least a lightning speeding Weasel haring for cover along the line of the hedge!

5th May 2022 / Temp: 17 C / Water Level: Med

Green Drake (Ephemera danica) Mayfly

Our first Mayfly of the season? What delight to spot it landing on a riverside reed, its tails still bent, clinging perfectly still while it dried and hardened off!

High winds, gusting strongly, persuaded us to check out the river whose steep banks provided the perfect shelter and where the sun felt deliciously warm. No signs of spraint on any of the stones, but our attention was distracted by the sheer number of midges covering the river, the recent sunny weather having lead to an explosion of newly emerged flies, a feast for the local wild brown trout!

Midges

We began pottering about along the edge of the river where the water was shallow and almost still. Imagine our excitement when we found among the usual freshwater shrimps, green drake and olive mayflies a totally unknown Mayfly nymph in our tray!

Prong-gilled Mayfly nymph (Leptophlebiidae)

When we researched and compared we found it was a prong-gilled mayfly which, according to Firstnature, are seen mostly in the south and the west and never plentiful. The nymphs are poor swimmers, crawling among mosses and tunneling within waterlogged leaves, particularly in the slower moving water of river margins, so we were in the right spot to find one. We were so pleased as this new find brings to six the number of Mayfly species we have now found in this stretch of river.

23rd/24th April 2022 / Temp: 13C/14.5C / Water Level: Med

A busy weekend! The Two-Day Event which normally takes place on the last weekend in April, cancelled for two years running due to the pandemic, was able to go ahead this year. We set off to check the first of our sites for Otter spraint, which, once recorded, and spraint removed with a stick so that there was no human contact, the stones were clear so that on the second day any new signs of spraint would be obvious and show that an Otter had visited the site overnight.

We were so lucky in our choice as we had an absolute bumper haul – finding 9 fresh spraint, 8 recent and 1 set of pad marks on the first day, the most we have found at one site in all the years we have been surveying!  Lovely to see a large bed of wild comfrey edging the river but we had little time to check other signs of wildlife, and, as there was a stiff north-easterly wind blowing, sending spits of rain from lowering overcast skies, we certainly weren’t tempted to linger. However, we did at least manage to spot three Mandarin Ducks, 5 Male Mallard in a group and a Buzzard wheeling overhead.

Day Two dawned fair and by the time we arrived under blue skies and full sun it felt considerably warmer despite the same stiff north-easterly breeze. The heavily blossom laden fruit trees were humming with bees and hover flies and we even spotted our first St Mark’s fly of the year (said to arrive on St Mark’s Day, the 25th April) trying to settle on a gate post but struggling in the wind.

Unfortunately there were no signs of any new spraint where we found so much on the previous day, but we were extremely pleased (and relieved) to find 3 fresh spraint at the next nearest next, proving there had been an Otter(Otters?) in the area overnight – great news!

A fair sprinkling of butterflies spotted as we walked the river bank, 5 Orange Tip, 2 Small Tortoiseshell, 2 Brimstone, a Peacock and a Speckled Wood. We heard the lovely sound of Blackbirds singing their hearts out and spotted a male and female , almost certainly a nesting pair. We saw a Little Egret, a Heron, 2 Mallard, a Swan, and heard Wrens, Chiff Chaffs, a Chaffinch and Greenfinch and finally, joy on joy, two Kingfishers flashing up and down the river!

Our last cherry on the cake was when the owner of the property told us that he had seen a Hedgehog clost to his house, this added a new animal to our species list and made for a bumper couple of days, a thoroughly satisfying Two-Day Event and one which will be difficult to match next year.

10th April 2022 / Temp: 13 C / Water Level: Med – falling

Dock leaf Beetle

Bonking beetles can mean only one thing – summer has arrived and for the first time this year the river level was low enough for the grandchildren to join us for an afternoon exploring the river.

Little Egret (Egretta Garzetta) – copyright Rebecca Muirhead

As we tramped across the river meadow loaded down with nets and buckets, trays and pipettes, wellington boots and identification sheets it was delightful to see our first sighting this year of a Peacock butterfly on the bushes, two Mallard and a pair of Canada Geese in the river, a Little Egret flying overhead and numbers of Yellow Dung flies on the search for a mate.

Yellow Dung Fly

Once we reached the small area where the river runs through a stony section where the river is shallow enough to wade, the business of the day could start, and two boys were soon wading in, nets at the ready, as they began searching amongst the stones for treasure – wee beasties, fish, fossils, river limpets, mayfly nymphs, signal crayfish – whatever turned up in their nets they were happy.

Flat-bodied upwing nymph (Ecdyonurus sp) – copyright Rebecca Muirhead

Their first find was an absolute beauty – a Mayfly nymph, one of the flat-bodied or stone clinger nymphs which cling to the bottom of stones and feed by scraping the algae. This one looked as if it had been in the wars as part of one of its three tails was missing.

Bullhead

Next was a Bullhead, a small fish, less than 10cm long, but with the most beautifully marked large pectoral fins which allows the Bullhead to hold its position in the fast flowing water.

Mayfly nymph (Baetidae)

After such excitement it was a bit of a let down that net after net produced nothing more exciting than freshwater shrimps, Caddis and Mayfly nymphs hidden by weed and murky water which made the creatures almost entirely indecipherable in the photographs, although we managed to see at least two Baetidae nymphs, several Green Drake (Ephemera Danica) nymphs, free-swimming Caddis nymphs (Ryacophilidae) and three net-spinner Caddis (Hydropsyche), not huge numbers of species but small boys are rather more interested in hunting for crayfish than wee beasties so not a bad haul.

Grey Wagtail (Motacilla cinerea) – copyright Rebecca Muirhead

One of the advantages of standing in the centre of a fast flowing river is being well positioned to catch sight of birds like a Kingfisher shooting past and two (probably a pair) of Grey Wagtails fishing from opposite sides of the river, our single Swan still patrolling and guarding the nest well hidden out of sight, and a Heron languidly lifting from the shallows.

Freshwater shrimp with orange spot

One of the freshwater shrimps was instantly noticeable by a bright orange/red spot on its body which was rather concerning as we later learned it was the larva of the Acanthocephalan parasitic worm Pomphorhynchus spp. The larval stage, known as the cystocanth, causes a characteristic orange spot to develop within the body of the intermediate shrimp host, increasing the shrimp’s visibility to fish which prey on them. After the shrimp is ingested the larva burrows into the gut of the new host and develops into the mature worm.

Barbel and Chub (present in this stretch of the river) are both susceptible to these parasitic worms. According to the National Fishing Laboratory, emaciation and mortality have been recorded in infected fish, however, where infections of the parasite remain relatively stable, e.g. in the river Avon, fish growth and survival does not seem to be adversely affected.
There are no means to eradicate P. laevis after it has become established.  The intermediate host, Gammarus (freshwater shrimp) is an important food source of most freshwater fish and cannot be controlled without damaging the environment, so the life cycle of the parasite cannot be interrupted.

25th March 2022 / Temp: 17-18.5 C / Water Level: High

Mallard (m&f) Anas platyrhynchos

A lovely afternoon, hazy sun, but surprisingly warm as it was still the end of March and it appeared that the birds were reacting to the warmth as we saw a Little Egret and a Heron on the opposite bank almost immediately after we arrived (the first Heron we have seen for months). A pair of Mallard skittered across the river as we walked along, three Mandarin swam upstream away from us, followed by two Canada Geese.

When we climbed down to the beach to check for Otter spraint, we found one fresh and one recent spraint on its favourite large stone and then, when we checked the rest of the beach, we found more signs of Otter activity – two more recent spraint in the centre of the beach and another two at the far end. When we later chatted to the one of the owners, she told us that early one morning as she was walking alongside the shallow stream she saw what she supposed by its size to be a dog Otter reclining at ease on its back in the water, very relaxed and very much at home!

Alder leaf beetles (Agelastica alni)

Given the warm sun we expected to see a number of insects, but apart from an ubiquitous 7-spot ladybird, the only other signs of insect life were these three alderleaf beatles marching across a dead stalk on their way to who knows where, looking very glossy and new minted.

A number of male Robins were singing loudly from the trees and bushes as we walked along the river bank to the final survey site where we could see a Mute Swan preening itself on the beach below, but once it saw us it moved off into the water, but stayed close by which was explained by the owner telling us later that it was nesting nearby. Another Heron flew over, we heard a Magpie chattering and a male Chaffinch singing, joined by a Wren announcing its presence with astonishing volume for such tiny bird, a Blue Tit searching through the branches of a tree and a beautiful Kingfisher, a sudden dart of vivid orange, blue-green and electric blue, flashed by with a sharp call.

Blue Tit (Cyanistes caeruleus) – copyright John Hansford

Though resting only briefly from our climbing up and down banks and precarious loose stone slopes, we were still enough to spot a Tree Creeper living up to its name on a tree trunk on the opposite side of the river. They are always such a delight to watch, heightened on this occasion as we listened to the yaffle of a Green Woodpecker from a nearby tree.

On our way back we met the owners and had a long chat about the wildflife on their property, seeing the Otter for the first time and also mentioning that she was feeding both the ducks and the breeding Swans as well as the pair of resident Moorhens which had successful raised a brood of eight young last year. Whilst we chatted, the two Canada Geese flew over honking and calling and she mentioned that they had only arrive for the first time that day. It was heartening to see so many birds in a relatively small area – more than we had seen at any of our walks up on the downs, through the beech woods and along other stretches of the river – a veritable wild life haven. Maintain an area for wildlife and they will come!

23rd March 2022 / Temmp 16 C / Water level: High

A wonderfully sunny spring morning and the tone was set as we arrived at our first survey site to be greeted by a bright yellow Grey Wagtail seranading us with great gusto from a fence post and two Buzzards wheeling and circling overhead!

Fat bumble bees, hoverflies, two Small Tortoiseshell and a Brimstone butterfly buzzed and fluttered around as we walked and we even saw our first Beefly of the year of which sadly, despite many tries, I wasn’t able to get a good photograph.

Padmarks across the muddy beach at the first survey site, one fresh and one recent Otter spraint at the next but none at what is usually our most productive beach, which was a surprise. However looking again at the mere narrow passage of stones where there is usually a wide stoney beach supplied the answer – the river was too high.

River Limpet (Ancylus fluviatilis)

Still, we still managed to navigate the beach and spent an enjoyable time “flipping” stones in the shallows and were delighted to find a couple of River Limpets which are so small not only are they difficult to see but even more difficult to photograph. I was unable to capture it’s backwardly directed apex – a shame as it is a clear identification if one is needed. Ancylus fluviatilis is an air-breathing limpet found in unpolluted running water clamped to the sides of stones.

Stone Clinger (Flat-headed Mayfly (Family Heptageniidae)

Searching further under the stones we enter a secret, hidden world of the tiny Stone-clingers, minute creatures, no bigger than a thumb nail, beautifully marked and patterned with huge eyes and three long tails which confirms they are Mayfly nymphs.

Few pleasures in life can equal crouching beside a fast flowing river on a warm spring day with the sounds of the water splashing and tumbling over stones and a Robin singing his heart out while lifting stone after stone to discover every other stone with a tiny creature clinging to its surface. A veritable heaven.

Apart from the usual large flock of a hundred plus Rooks and Jackdaws rising and falling from the fields and over the stand of trees on the hillside, we saw and heard Greenfinch, Great Tit, Long-tailed Tits and Blue Tits, Wrens, Blackbird, Herring Gulls, Crows, but only 3 Mallard, 1 Little Egret, and one Swan, the only water birds to be seen. There were no signs of the other two Swans who usually gather together or of the 20-30 Mandarin Ducks we often see at this site.

Cow Parsley (Anthriscus sylvestris)

No sign of Hares or Kingfisher either but we did see a small field mouse scampering for cover, the first flowering cow parsley of the season, joining red and white deadnettle, scarlet pimpernel, lesser celandine and perriwinkle, feeding the newly emerging insects and also a line of Roedeer slots across the small muddy beach down to the water’s edge which conjured up a magical image of the sun rising over the river and a small deer dropping its head to drink.

19th March 2022 / Temp: 16C / Water Level: High but falling

A glorious afternoon, full sun and despite the brisk chill wind there was a definite feeling of spring in the air – a perfect day to spend walking through the river meadows carrying our buckets and trays, nets and pippets ready for our first Kick Survey of the year – what fun!

We were delighted to find fresh spraint at our first site, and at our second site and even more to find two fresh and one recent at the next. Nothing to see on the last two sites but we felt pretty upbeat to find so many, two of them with crayfish claws alongside.

17th March 2022 / Temp : 12-13.5 C / Water Level: High

Frogspawn

We were surprised to find clumps of frogspawn on the bank above the carrier stream when we were checking Otter spraint, one fresh, one old on either side. Otters do consume amphibian eggs and small juvenile and subadult frogs, so this is likely to be evidence of Otter activity, although not a phenomenum we have noticed before.

Otter spraint and frogspawn

When we examined the spraint more closely, it appeared to contain not only black frogs eggs but also some of the jelly which encases it. An interesting find, confirming an article we had read on Tadpoles in the diet of Otters in the Journal of Vertebrate Biology. The scientests found that Tadpoles made up a large part of the Otter’s diet in June more than at any other time of the year, which although the Tadpoles must be a reasonable size by then, one would have imagined there were sufficient crayfish and fish to eat.

Dungfly

Great to see the first dungflies appearing over the past week gearing up nicely for the nesting season. It won’t be many weeks before every step across the river meadow will send up a cloud of dungflies – a sure sign of spring. We also saw a Tortoiseshell butterly (the first of the year) which flew away before I could snatch a photograph.

We were pleased as we walked the site to spot a male and two female Goosanders and 3 Mallard on the river, then obligingly flying over, joined soon afterwards two Cormorants and three more Mallard. We later saw another 3 Mallard, a Little Egret dawdling in the middle of an adjoining field, and a couple of Wrens flitting between the trees on the river bank.

Dog’s Mercury

There were goodly clumps of Dog’s Mercury in flower in the shelter of the hedge and it certainly felt springlike when we heard a Yellowhammer, several Robins, Great Tits, Blackbirds and the constant calling of Jackdaws from the stand of trees at the top of the rise.

Intermittent blue sky, periods of sunshine and the sound and signs of spring together with promise of full sunny days and 18 C temperatures in the coming week combine to lift our spirits and convince us as nothing else could that winter is definitely over.

28th February 2022 / Temp: 10 C / Water Level: High

Mallard Skull

A quick dash to the river before the rain sets in for the rest of the week. We expected to get soaked and see nothing – it shows how wrong we can be! First it was dry, not surprising give the still wind, and secondly we had one of our most productive visits to this stretch of river. We spotted fresh fresh and recent spraint, and under the hedgerow amongst the scattered broken twigs and small branches of the recent storms, these two skulls, within a few yards of each other.

Woodpigeon Skull

They have been well cleaned so must have been there for some time yet we’ve never spotted them before. We were so pleased to find them because although we have a small collection of animal skulls, the only bird skull up until now is a pheasant, so it’s good to add a couple more, particularly the Mallard.

Canada Geese

A pair of Canada Geese were quietly enjoying their snug little spot on the river bank and made the most almight row as we approached, took to the water, and hightailed up river in very high dudgeon! The bird count which began at zero and looked as totally unpromising as the overcast sky and dull meadows with their brown, leafless trees. But we also disturbed three Mallard who flew over, we could hear mostly Rooks and a few Jackdaws in the adjoining field followed by Wren, Blackbird, at least five Robins, a few desultory Gulls and totally unexpectedly – a Red Kite!

27th February 2022 / Temp: 11C / Water Level: High

The first hoverfly of the year! It lifted our hearts to see it there, settling on a newly opened dandelion in the last week of what has been a wild and stormy February. It was probably encouraged by the brilliant sunshine – despite the brisk and blustery wind, sheltered spots felt positively springlike as the sun was so warm.

We also spotted two Magpies when we arrived – two for joy and so it seemed when we found two recent Otter spraint, not where we usually see them but on the grass which may have been due to the high water levels and the fast and furious current.

Disappointing bird life – a couple of Crows – ditto Blackbirds but several groups of fishermen taking advantage of the sunshine. No signs of Otter at the next two sites and little other signs of life so we sat on the bank and imitated the fishermen – sitting still and quiet and were almost immediately rewarded by a pair of Canada Geese swimming up river towards us. We heard a Raven flying over, Rooks from an adjoining field, spotted 4 Jackdaws jak jaking a greeting as they passed and a tiny Wren glowing almost red in the bright sunshine and a party of tits slitting about between the branches of the tree opposite.

Sunlight on boggy field

Walking back across the river meadows the stiff wind brought colour to our cheeks and good fresh air to our lungs and we meandered along, checking the fallen branches and twigs for lichen, moss and any other treasures when we found this tiny tree snail attached to one of the large twigs.

Trees Snail (possible Balea sarsii)

Difficult to identify but we plumped for Balea sarsii but have posted it onto the iSpot website and will change and update if this suggestion is proved wrong.

A large old Ash tree in the line of hedgerow was one of the victims of the latest storm. Sad to see such a beautiful tree down but we picked a handful of stems with their sooty black buds to take home in the hope that eventually they will break into leaf. Spotted some Red deadnettle in flower in the shelter of the hedge alongside several lesser celandine plants in flower. Spring is edging ever closer!

17th February 2022 / Temp: 10.5-7.5 C / Water Level: High

Overcast, strong wind, brief periods of brilliantly clean sunshine and a sudden heavy rain shower – apart from snow it was one of those days where all the seasons passed in a couple of hours, but one glance at the river and the recent weather is clear – high rainfall and swollen, turbulent rivers follows as night follows day! The resulting swirls, eddies and miniature whirlpools in the tumbling water make for a dramatic picture.

The fresh and recent spraint we found wan’t on boulders, large stones or on a scraped hillock as we usually find, but on a small patch of grass, up from the river and, as was the case in the last spraint a couple of weeks ago, red from its last meal of signal crayfish.

Winter Gnats / Trichocera annulata

Another sign of the weather beginning to turn was a small cloud of winter gnats which followed us along the river bank. Annoying though they are, it is a reminder that there are warmer days coming sometime, winter doesn’t last all year despite every sign showing the contrary.

Some water bird activity, if comparitively few in numbers, at least we caught sight of a Cormorant, a Swan, a couple of Mandarin and eight Mallard, although no sign of Heron or Little Egret. A few Robins singing their hearts out, Long-tailed Tits and Blue and Great Tits flitting throught the trees, a small flock of Jackdaws and a few Crows and Gulls flying over. We may have missed some, as the sharp shower descended we headed at speed to the shelter of the car and gave little attention to what was flying overhead!

8th February 2022 / Temp: 11-13 C / Water Level: Med-High

Magpie (Pica Pica)

One of a pair of Magpies, busy around the bank and trees, beside the river on a mild but very overcast day where the light was gloomy and wintry. As the weather had been a mixture of mizzle and heavy cloud for days we expected little, merely driven out by noisy builders from a neighbouring house, we thought the calm of the river might be just what we needed. We were proved right. Even on a dreary day in February there is always something to see and we were further rewarded by the unexpected find of two fresh and two recent Otter spraint. The fresh spraint was the first “red” spraint for at least 2 or 3 months which tells us that the crayfish are active again.

Golden Yellow Sunburst Lichen (Xanthoria parietina)

Almost every branch and the twigs of most of the trees are coated with lichen and the sunburst lichen earns its name – making a bold splash of colour in amongst the drab brown leafless trees – a delight to the eye and draws us every time to examine its tiny cups and delicate leaves.

Always a frision of excitement when we catch sight of or hear a Buzzard, so much more so when we see first one then two more Buzzard wheeling and mewing high, high above our heads and also hear as we did the croak of a Raven. The appearance of the raptors may have accounted for the few small birds we heard or saw – merely a couple of Robin, ditto Wren and a single Blue Tit. But later briefly sitting quiet and still on the river bank, we spotted a Coot, which has become a rare sighting for us, skittering across the river, scrambling up the bank and disappearing under the trees.

Remains of a half-eaten 2lb Chub found on the river bank

We met a local fisherman who was walking the bank, checking the fish stock. We often see him along the river and he is always a mine of information as he has fished these waters since childhood. He showed us the above photograph which he was sure was Otter kill, although we have always understood that Otters eat the fish head first so it was unlikely. We agreed to differ and he told us when and where to go to see the barbel and chub swarm, and where he sees Otters most frequently. He promised to take a film of the Otters next time he saw them and we promised to look out for the fish swarming.

Update: 10.2.2022 :

Well I was totally and utterly wrong! Having checked with the Somerset Otter Group, Lucy Mead writes: “Yes, a typical otter. Takes the food behind the head where the organs and best store of nutrients are.” Below is a link to the S.O.G. website with that and other signs of Otters being present.

I’ve sent my apologies to the fisherman.

http://www.somersetottergroup.org.uk/94-2/elementor-2862?fbclid=IwAR2bsMGmZNcnU6HvaTrtvo8J-hMgYEnMPsphe9HkwB90XpHEVEA-zzbxTNk

Possible Pollution incident

We were perturbed to see creamy-brown scum all the way along the river wherever there was slack water. We sent half a dozen photographs and exact locations to the Environment Agency even though they have recently announced that they do not have sufficient staff to be able to send one of their officers monitor the possible pollution incident they replied:

The information you provided about pollution in the River Frome has been logged onto our system. We combine this incident information with other data. This helps us to assess how serious the incident could be.”

They also add the following:

This year the Environment Agency received less funding for responding to environmental incidents. This means we:

–        are unable to respond to every environmental incident reported to US

–        need to prioritise OUR activities on incidents that cause serious and significant risk

–        are reducing OUR response to less severe incidents

–        may in some cases, after assessing the risk, decide that no further action will be taken

–        will use the information provided to build a picture of environmental threats which may allow US to secure additional funding

–        will continue to regulate activities with an environmental permit so WE can prevent damage to the environment

–        will not provide feedback to individual reports of environmental incidents

26th January 2022 / Temp: 5C / Water Level: Med.

Sunny, cloudy morning, stiff chill wind and the air crisp and clear. As we arrived at the stile leading to the river, a Grey Heron rose languidly from the water and flew majestically across the water meadows, and a small flock of some six Mallard squawked off with a great flapping of wings – a good sight to see water birds back along this stretch of the river. Even better, as we walked down we disturbed a snowy white Little Egret who flew a short distance along the field and then moved twice more as we came ever closer to his previous spot. We looked across the small carrier stream to the bend in the river where a dead bare tree stood sillouetted against the sky. It is a favourite perch for the local Cormorants and there he was, a Cormorant, looking fine, standing tall and proud at the topmost branch – the pterodactyl of the riverside! A goodly haul for a chilly morning in January.

Lichens take the place of flowers in the depth of winter, when the days are short, often dark and invariably finger numbingly cold, providing, along with the purple alder catkins, what little colour there is to see. Even common shield lichen, and the golden splash of Xanthoria parietina though very widespread and, well, common, is a welcome sight.

Alders and willows lining the river bank

No signs of Otter at any of the three sites but we stopped and chatted to a fisherman who was just setting up and told us how he had seen an Otter in the first week of December – great news. He felt the river was too slow and sluggish to give him much sport today but he was looking forward to a quiet time by the river. Fishing for him was the perfect antidote to a stressful job, allowing him to sit in the sun and unwind. We seconded that feeling – one we shared when out Otter-spotting – rivers are the most calm making environments we know.

20th January 2022 / Temp: 4 C / Water Level: Med-High

Choosing a different track to walk to the river, higher up, across a south facing slope, protected from the cold north-easterly wind we were able to bask in the warm sunshine and glory in yet another beautifully crisp clear winter morning – bliss. This has been the sunniest January either of us can remember and we count ourselves so fortunate to be able to enjoy it.

The warm sun had melted the hoar frost so the ground was wet and soggy and by the time we reached the river our boots were caked in mud becoming heavier and heavier as we walked. The Brown Hare we caught sight of running away up the maize field seemed to have no such problem! He kept running until he reached the open gate, when he stopped and then arched his back, almost like a cat, before lolloping off and was soon lost to sight.

Reaching the beach and splashing around in the stony shallows helped clear the mud and gave an opportunity to pick up stones and search for signs of life, which included this fearsome beast, for all the world like a minute dragon, glaring and threatening for being disturbed.

Mayfly nymph

It looked like a flattened Mayfly nymph – with its large eyes – possibly Ecdyonuridae, difficult to be sure, but delightful to see clinging to a stone. Presence of flathead nymphs is often an indicator of good water quality, because they are relatively intolerant to pollution. [This has now been identified by Craig Macadam of The Riverfly Partnership via iRecord as Flat-bodied Up-wings Heptageniidae but he was unable to identify the species as the image was not clear enough].

If you take the time to to flip over enough stones and rocks in moderate moving water you’re bound to find lots of Flathead Mayfly (Heptageniidae) nymphs of various sizes. Trout feed on these larvae all the year round, tipping up the stones to find them underneath where the nymphs hide if they are disturbed.

Freshwater River Limpet – Ancyus fluvialitis

Another unexpected find was a tiny freshwater river limpet, on its own which was a surprise as we usually see them (if at all) clustered together along a stone. It’s always difficult to get a good clear photograph to show its conical, backwardly directed apex, which we always think looks like a French Liberty or Phrygian cap, but it is clear enough to show some growth lines.

Messing about among the shallows rooting through the stones in the water made us forget why we were there so we eventually turned our attention to Otters and began a serious search and were delighted to find two fresh Otter spraint at either end of the beach. Interestingly no signs of crayfish in the spraint so they must still be staying in their tunnels, difficult to i.d. the contents but possibly frogs.

Magical to hear the warning peep of a Kingfisher flashing past which with the warm sun beating down on this sheltered beach reminded us that winter won’t last forever.

Walking back along the river, scanning the track for signs of Otter and the skies for signs of birdlife we spotted a pair of Cormorants flying up from the river and settling on one of the trees. Only 1 Mallard seen during the whole morning but a mixed flock of male and female Mandarin, only 7 so numbers still down, but a circling Buzzard, Jackdaws and a Raven as well as 2 Swans and 1 last year’s juvenile plus the usual Robin, Tits, Chaffinch, Magpie, Blackbird, Crow and Pheasant.

Along the line of electric fencing which we have to crawl under on our hands and knees we were amused to note the number of tracks, very visible in the long grass, of animals who have chosen the same route – probably badgers given the number of setts we see on the eathen bank at the top of the field, and not the adult and juvenile Roe Deer whose tracks we spotted on the mud of the big beach – they would have had no problem leaping the wire.

17th January 2022 / Temp: 7 C / Water Level: Med-Hi

Another glorious winter’s afternoon, warm sunshine again and blue blue skies, such a pleasure to be out and about and wonderful to spend a couple of hours pottering along the river bank.

Our one sighting was a splodge of anal jelly on the ford beach but sadly no signs of spraint and as far as we know there has been no record of Otter in the town for some weeks, so although this and the pad marks of three days ago shows that there is an Otter about, it seems pretty shy and doesn’t appear to be lingering.

Polypody agg

Our first sighting of polypody ferns along the river – winter is the time for spotting fungus and such plants as there is little to distract the eye at this time of the year.

Not as many birds as we usually see on this particular stretch, but it was lovely to see a Song Thrush and 8 Mallard and also a Coal Tit (a first along the river) and Blue Tits in a party of tits in a favourite tree. We heard Jackdaws and a Robin and saw 6 Herring Gulls flying over, but disappointingly few given this stretch of river is our best area for bird spotting.

14th January 2022 / Temp: 5-4.5 C / Water Level: Med-High

A beautiful, perfect winter’s day, the air cool and fresh, the sun warm on our backs as we walked the route, and bathing the river and trees with golden light – good to be alive!

The meadows were drenched with melted hoar frost, which still lingered frozen on the sheltered margins. Three fishermen along the bank still hopeful of a good catch but when we passed they were out of luck. As were we – although not entirely! We checked the culvert which carries a winterbourne or overflow along a muddy stretch to empty into the river and found 6 pad marks. This is a favourite route for Otters as the pipe is easily large enough for them to use as a run between fields, and although it is not as welcome as lots of spraint, it’s at least a sign that the Otters are out and about.

Mycena pseudocorticola

There’s a lovely old tree on the water’s edge, possibly an alder, covered in moss and lichen where we sometimes find Otter spraint displayed on one of its knobbly roots. No luck on the spraint but we did spend time examining all the lichens which included my favourite Fanfare of Trumpets (brilliant name!) and just about spotted three tiny, tiny delicate and fragile fungus, like miniature parachutes, almost hidden amongst the moss and dwarfed by a clump of lichen (possibly Ramalina canariensis).

Spider’s web with melted frost droplets

Although almost impossible to see, these droplets of melted frost were clinging to an invisible spider’s web – one of the delights of winter.

More spider’s webs with their cluster of water drops, these almost lost among the leaf litter at the foot of an old wall of a building, its stones providing a good home for masses of moss..

Little bird life, merely a few Blackbirds, a Wren, Wood Pigeons and Pheasants, we heard a Mallard and saw three more Mallard and several Crows flying over and heard Jackdaws from the neighbouring fields as we walked back across the meadows. The sun was still warm although sinking fast so we rather reluctantly headed home before the temperature began to drop too low but not before spotting one last reward – a beautiful fungus covered log along the way.

Smoky polyporeBjerkandera adusta

31st December 2021 / Temp: 15 C / Water Level: High

Otter (Lutra Lutra) – Copyright: Richard Downes

Richard Downes captured this wonderful photograph of an Otter hunting upstream and posted it on the Frome Wildlife Watch website. This raised our spirits considerably after we had spent the same afternoon checking two of our sites without success, we could find no signs of Otter whatsoever.

However, the afternoon was not wasted. A group of fishermen from the Frome & District Angling Club were just getting into their cars as we arrived and joy on joy Paul Cook whipped out his mobile phone and showed us film he took in November of an Otter swimming under water just where he was fishing, and told us of another sighting up river in the next field in October, the Otter too fast to catch on camera!

The day began to look up. Checking along the river bank (zilch!) we saw two fishermen on the opposite bank, one whom, Max Pang (F&DAA), said we had just missed seeing a Kingfisher and he had spotted a Mink streaking along the river bank a couple of hours before!

So good to hear of lots of action along the river – and we did see a Swan by the weir, a celandine in flower, several flowering dandelions as well as lots of winter gnats…. hmm.

We began to tramp back across the meadow as the light was fading fast and sunset less than half an hour away when quite suddently the sky seemed to be full of birds. In the first flock, flying over towards their roosts, were at least 30 Black-headed Gulls, followed by a mixed flock of 50+ Lesser Black-Backed and Herring Gulls, then a small party of 6 Mallard circled above and flew off downriver past the Swan, and finally a flock of about 30 Jackdaws with 3 Rooks among them headed towards the tall trees at the top of the hill, chattering vociferously all the while. Such a lovely sound in the gathering dusk, the golden hour on a winter’s day and surely an omen of good fortune, why not as it was New Year’s Eve!

21st December 2021 / Temp: 5.5 – 4.5 C / Water Level: Med

Winter Solstice

A cold, bright afternoon with a stiff icy wind blowing from the east so we wrapped up warmly and headed along the river in search of Otter. Three Blackbirds were feeding on the berries of the first tree we passed and a handful of Tits were working their way busily along the line, the sun was shining making the red windfall apples glow and gilding the great clumps and balls of mistletoe festooning the tree above.

We set up a pair of Mallard as we reached the river bank, flying off over the old ford with a good deal of squawking and complaining, disturbing a peacefully browsing Moorhen as they did so, making it also scoot off.

The river looked black and cold as it rushed and tumbled over the stones and swirled in the fast current, a black sloe river, reflecting the starkly sillouetted and leafless alders and willows along the bank.

No signs of Otter at our first two sites but we did spot a Heron and a Little Egret through the trees, sharing the field on the opposite bank within shouting distance of each other, and heard and saw a flock of Jackdaws and Gulls flying overhead.

Although the stand of trees sheltered us from the worst of the wind, it was still too cold to linger, so we hurried on to the next site, a lovely wide stony beach where we usually find at least one spraint but not today. Just as we were about to leave the beach a little disconsolate at our lack of treasure, we spotted a single fresh pad mark in the gritty sand – closer inspection showed the claw marks and two other pad marks, so faint in the drier area of sand as to be almost invisible to a passing glance. This raised our spirits considerably – not spraint or jelly but a sign that an Otter has passed by!

A couple of feathers showed that at least one water bird had tarried or passed by too – possibly Little Egret but more likely to be the feathers of an almost adult cygnet which we have seen recently which although it had lost most of its brown juvenile feathers, still retained a few which might be why one of the feathers had brown markings.

Winter Flowering Cherry Blossom

We walked on to check the last two sites where we had seen a pair of Dippers at our last visit and a good deal of spraint on the survey before that but not today – ah well, it is December after all, when the local Otters seem to make themselves scarce from our particular stretch. But we passed a wintering flowering cherry tree, its blossom beautiful and pristine in the lowering sunlight which warmed our backs and turned the grass and trees golden as we walked back across the fields, the air heavy with the smell of wood smoke – a good log fire warming some lucky householder’s hearth!

15th December 2021 / Temp: 12.5 C / Water Level: High

Our favourite willow tree has been in the wars again and has lost another of its main branches, split from the trunk and covering half of the beach. We couldn’t be sure whether it was caused by the recent Storm Barra or whether old age and disease led to its downfall but it was so sad to see. We always used to check the branches for their glorious moss and lichen which is often the only signs of life in winter.

Maritime Sunburst lichen

Sadly no signs of Otter at any of the three sites and no sightings yet in the town, but we are still hopeful. The most striking aspect of the morning’s walk was the huge flocks of Gulls clustered together in the fields of which we counted 85 Black-headed Gulls and 16 Lesser Black-backed Gulls with about 16 Jackdaws and 4 Pheasants standing almost like sentinels well separated from each other and the Gulls. Suddenly, as if on a signal, they all rose in a huge cloud and flew off, soon to be lost to sight, however, during the whole of our walk across field after field small flocks of Gulls flew over our heads in a restless ever searching flight.

25th November 2021 / Temp: 6 C / Water Level: Med

Brilliant sunshine, sparkling icy air and blue, blue skies was the backdrop as we clambered over the five-barred gate with gusto and as we set off on the last Otter survey of November we couldn’t have asked for a more perfect day. The northerly wind burned the tips of our ears with the fierce cold remembered from childhood so stout boots, warm socks and muffled scarves were a blessing as we took the full force in our faces.

The fields seemed frozen in their sunny perfection – not a movement – no birds, no cattle, no insects, no signs of life whatsoever, merely the confetti fall of golden leaves, melted frost on the grass and the bleached reeds bending and straightening along the water’s edge.

The Otters seemed to take the hint not to disturb such pristine perfection with their spraint as there were no signs of Otter at all on any of the three sites, the river slipped along almost silently as there are no riffles or stones along this stretch and the deep peace of a frozen silence gripped the scene.

Eventually first one, then another and another as three Herring Gulls appeared and flew across the field – sparkling white in the bright sunlight and as always surprisingly large. A few Wood Pigeons flew from one tree to another to no apparent purpose and then we disturbed a Pheasant hidden among the reeds below the bank, no doubt sheltering from the wind, who flew off across the river with lots of noisy squawking and fast claps as it bangs its wings together – startling in the frozen silence.

We began to notice clusters of apples caught in the river eddies in increasing numbers – a box thrown into the river upstream perhaps. Surprisingly Otters are known to eat quite a lot of fruit, blackberries and all varieties of berries and even apples, so this fruit should offer some valuable vitamins against the coming winter.

And then, at last – bonanza! We heard hidden Mallards quacking, we saw a Cormorant perched motionless on its usual tree at the end of the field, a Heron stalking the hedge boundary, no doubt hunting for frogs, and then two Buzzards appeared, mewing loudly, circling overhead above us, round and round searching the ground for food.

After checking the farthest beach, also empty of Otter signs, we headed back across the field – and reached the bridge in time to spot a pair of Magpies, another Herring Gull and flitting across the river and among the trees a brilliantly coloured Great Tit, its breast glowing yellow in the sunlight. We had noticed winter gnats and midges about so lots of delicious snacks for hungry Tits. There is life – even in this still and silent world where no birds sing!!

22nd November 2021 / Temp: 5 C / Water Level: Med

Strong icy wind and frost still thick on the shady areas of the fields unexposed to the sun, but a beautiful morning, cloudless blue sky from horizon to horizon – a perfect day for crawling under 2 foot high barbed wire fences and navigating steep, unstable river banks!

No signs of Otter at the first two sites but it was wonderful to see a number of Mallard heading upstream as we approached the river, seeing twenty plus take to the air followed by at least a dozen or more Mandarin and a Little Egret. We had been so perplexed during last month’s survey at the total absence of both species, so it’s a relief to see that event was an aberration rather than an abandonment of the site.

Good to see gulls lifting and swirling above the recently harvested maize field, a mixed flock of Black-headed and Lesser Blackbacked as well Herring Gulls in good numbers. The large flock of Jackdaws and Rooks in amongst the cattle (who appeared very calm – thank goodness!) and circling the trees on the hill slope seem to grow larger at each visit, their chattering and calls such an evocative sound of autumn.

Negotiating a very tricky and careful descent of the steep bank onto the last beach, battling with brambles and hidden hollows, we eventually made it and found two fresh and one recent Otter spraint. In one of the fresh spraint we noticed quite large fragments of freshwater mussel shells, almost certainly duck mussel. Although we knew that Otters ate mussels, this is the first time we have actually seen signs. Another undigested remain was a small spike – possibly from a stickleback – ouch! Otters digestive tract must be lead lined to be able to cope with such objects passing through.

We were pleased to see at least some signs of life at our last site – a just reward for our struggle! But possibly an even greater delight when we discovered that the beach was totally protected from the cold north easterly wind – oh the bliss of pottering and exploring the stones with the full sun on our backs, hot enough for early summer rather than late November!

Lifting stones and searching for caddis larvae, we found this specimen which crawled out from its temporary retreat, while I was trying to photograph its domed pupal cocoon enclosure of rock and stone fragments constructed by the larva when it is ready to pupate. We have posted on iRecord to check but we think it is a Net Spinning Caddis larva, one of Hydropsychidae species, which spins a silk net to catch small particles like leaf detritus and even animal parts.

December 9th – Note: Ian Wallace (author of Simple Key to Caddis Larvae) has confirmed that this is indeed one of the Hydropsychidae species – Hydropsyche pellucidula). This is extremely good news as this is the first sighting at this site and means that we have identified Net Spinning Caddis larvae along the whole length of our survey area.

These caddis larva are always exciting to see as most species of free-living caddisflies are very sensitive to pollution and levels of dissolved oxygen, so they are usually found in only the fastest sections of clean rivers and streams.

Having spent some time happily pottering about the beach, we scrambled back up the steep bank and headed across the cattle pastures towards home.

We were rather amused by a wayward mole’s tunnels across the newly sown field – not the most direct way from A to B!!

Altogether a successful, thoroughly enjoyable morning – quite extraordinary how the strong north-easterly wind blowing into our faces has transformed into being wonderfully refreshing rather than horribly cold as it was when we ventured out!

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Signal Crayfish burrow entrances – copyright : Frome & District Angling Association

A couple of excellent photographs from the Frome & District Angling Association’s Facebook page illustrating a number of American Signal Crayfish entrances in the banks of the Mells Rive. It gives a really clear indication of the damage that this invasive species is causing, undermining the banks by excavating their burrows in ever increasing numbers.

copyright Frome & District Angling Association

A photograph illustrating the half moon shaped opening which is a classic sign of a crayfish burrow entrance, Water Vole’s burrow entrances for example are round.

19th November 2021 / Temp: 12 C / Water Level: Med-Low

The mist had dissipated leaving an overcast, damp and chilly morning and the weather was reflected in the wildlife out and about – pretty much zilch. No signs of Otter at either of the two sites surveyed and very few birds. We heard what sounded like a few Mallards, saw a couple of Pheasants which had probably escaped from the nearby shoot, parties of Tits flitting along the riverbank trees, constantly on the move, Crows, a single Robin and cackling Jackdaws.

We saw a rather handsome red-legged black spider on a mission, racing along the bridge rail but were unable to identify it despite trawling through our spider books. Trudging back across the field we spotted a small cluster of mushrooms which we were just too dispirited to identify – bonnets? inkcaps? who knows!

However, we ran into a fisherman, also heading home, too cold to stay longer, but he was really bucked up by having landing a five and a half pound Chub earlier in the morning, a beautiful, healthy looking specimen, so his day wasn’t wasted. He hadn’t noticed any birds but mentioned a pair of breeding Kingfishers which he often sees along the river at Weylands Field. Heartening news – even the most gloomy of days has its bright moments!

17th November 2021 / Temp: 10.5 C / Water Level: Med-Low

To say we were reluctant to leave the comfort of a warm house, a comfortable chair and coffee within reach would be a bit of an understatement! But we drove ourselves out, mumbling, groaning and complaining all the way and of course once we began to walk along the river bank, disturbing three Mallard, who flew off with great squawkings, two majestic Swans and a Cygnet, our spirits rose and good humour was restored. The intermittent sun helped as did the still golden leaves on a number of trees and the friendly twittering of the flocks of Long-tailed tits flittering from tree to tree leading the way along the river cheered us still further.

When we reached the first Otter site, we found two fresh spraint and one recent on the beach of the old Roman ford despite the overnight rain. Moving on to the next beach we found one recent spraint and on the last beach we found one recent spraint and two fresh anal jelly! This is the most spraint we have ever seen on this site and made up for the disappointment of finding none on our last survey – great excitement!

But by far the biggest excitement of the morning came as we neared the last beach, just in time to catch a glimpse of two Dippers flying off. We’ve never seen Dippers at this particular stretch of river – normally we spot them, if at all, farther downstream below the Roman ford or upstream near the confluence of the River Mells and the Somerset Frome so it was wonderful to catch sight of them here – particularly a pair.

Dipper (Cinclus cinclus – upstream in Vallis Vale) – copyright : Nathan Slee

The river is joined here by the Mill leat, and forms small stony rapids, perfect Dipper country. Rather weary from scrambling up and down banks, climbing over fences and negotiating the stony beaches made treacherous by the thick layer of fallen leaves hiding the dips and larger boulders, a rest seemed a brilliant option. Unfolding our little fishing stools, we perched on the bank above the beach, half hidden by the trees and shrubs, enjoying the sound of the water tumbling over the stones, and the sun turning the yellow leaves into pure gold. Half dreaming, watching the water, imagine our delight when one of the Dippers returned! First perching on a stone in the rapid dipping and dipping and dipping, hunting for food before flying off, low, and disappearing upstream.

Still we sat, reluctant to move, when what joy – the Dipper returned again! This time it began foraging in the water on the edge of the beach, not 5 yards below where we were sitting. We had the most perfect view of the Dipper feeding, head down, walking under the water, a feat we don’t often see – such a marvellous sighting, although sad to say, again it didn’t stay that long.

Noon fly (Mesembrina meridiana)

Rather surprisingly we caught sight of three Noon flies basking in the weak sunshine and a Eristalis sp hoverfly resting on the large leaves of a mullein as well as clouds of winter gnats, so a few insects are still around. Steven Falk, the Bristol entomologist (author of the Field Guide to the Bees of Great Britain & Ireland) mentioned on twitter yesterday that he has this autum changed the season for Noon flies, which used to finish in October, but has now been extended as there have been so many about this month.

Moving at last, checking out the good crop of mushroms under the trees, we walked to the boundary for a final check when a Kingfisher flashed by, downstream, following the bend of the river, although the sun wasn’t shining at that point, the bright, vivid blue was unmistakable. The well-known myth that Kingfishers are so difficult to spot, they have inspired a saying: ‘Only the righteous see the kingfisher’ sounds always rather unlikely – perhaps fortunate would be a better term or maybe blessed – whatever, it was a lovely final flourish to a very satisfying morning!

4th November 2021 / Temp: 9.5 C – 8.5 C / Water Level : Med

A sunny-cloudy afternoon, a chill in the air – fresh and clear, still no frost so far this autumn but colder, a hint that winter is not too far away. The river was also beginning to take on a look of autumn with the water level rising and making islands in what in summer are wide beaches. It won’t be long before the fast tumble and spates of winter raise the water level still higher and even the islands will disappear, not to be seen again until next summer. As the water rises we will look in vain for Dippers and Grey Wagtails who should be seen all year round but we never seem to spot in winter. There is said to be remarkably little difference in the behaviour of Dippers in winter, although we have yet to spot them, but the Grey Wagtails reportedly move away from the rivers to more urban areas, or farmyards and slurry pits or gardens.

No signs of Otter along either the river bank or the carrier stream, under the bridge or on the stones, maybe they like the water birds have moved on to more rewarding areas of the river.

All the insects have disappeared, apart from the winter gnats and midges, this beetle which I disturbed when pushing through the shrubs and trees – it looks like an alder-leaf beetle, quite the most common of the beetles almost everywhere and we spotted a single wasp around the ivy flowers. Very few flowers on the plants, just a tired looking bedraggled few still lingering – water mint, white dead nettle, dandelions, ragwort, hogweed and a few red clover – nothing to interest hungry insects looking for nectar.

Despite summer becoming an almost distant memory, these are the golden weeks – low bright sunlight turning yellow leaves, pale leafless branches and tree trunks to gold – a time of golden sunburst yellow scale lichen coating the branches, when fanfare of trumpets lichens offer good support for a cobweb spinning spider and shout look at me, look at me, I’m beautiful!!

Few birds although there were a good number of Jackdaws and Wood Pigeons, but apart from those a pretty meagre count of a couple of Crows, ditto Herring Gulls, ditto Blackbirds but again no signs of water birds, not even a single Mallard. We did hear a solitary Raven, his evocative call lifting our spirits but overall the river and meadows seemed quite suddenly empty but….. apart from the sound of the tumbling river it was also very, very quiet, calm and wonderfully soothing to bathe in the sunlit beauty of an autumn afternoon …. it’s so good to be alive and able to walk in such a place on such a day with such a dear companion.

14th October 2021 / Temp: 13.5 C / Water Level : Med-Low

Wrapped up against forecasted chilly temperatures, we walked from one site to the next, gradually removing a layer at a time, and still felt too warm – those same forecasters hadn’t taken into account the strength of the sunlight, surprisingly wonderfully hot, particularly for mid October!

Clambering up and down steep banks always added a bit of an edge to this stretch of our survey, will we or won’t we make it! Any doubts are ignored as these quieter, more out of the way, overgrown beaches are the most rewarding places for Otter spraint as proved to be the case today. One fresh, one recent, crayfish remains and two pad marks on the water’s edge – not a massive amount but proof the Otters are out and about.

There were no signs of Mallard at either of the first two sites, and astonishingly no Mandarin Ducks on a grassy bank where they are reguarly fed by a resident. We are used to seeing flocks of at least 20 Mallard and upwards of 30-40 Mandarin along this stretch of river so to see none at all seems a bit end of days! We had been listening to an 80 year old ornithologist on “Open Country” the Radio 4 programme who lives in the south of the county, and also mentioned the plummeting number of Mallard in his area. He believed there was something in the water which was causing the crash in numbers; certainly it appears to us here that it is the plant eating water birds which are suffering such a steep decline whereas Dipper, Kingfisher and Grey Wagtail numbers although low appear to be constant.

Falling numbers does not seem a problem faced by Jackdaws and Rooks if today’s numbers are seen – the full grown sycamore dominating the hedge on the border of the field was full of swirling, chattering, calling birds enjoying the remains of the maize harvest – from a rough estimate there looked to be at least 100 odd Jackdaws and 50 plus Rooks – what a racket but a lovely racket, the most evocative sound and sight of autumn fields.

A thorough search of the final beach was rewarded by finding 3 fresh spraint, 2 recent and crayfish remains and pleasingly a pair of Mallard swimming upriver! Lots of hoverflies and wasps and even a soltary Red Admiral fluttering by.

Back across the harvested fields and watching yet more Rooks and Jackdaws above the wood of mixed mature trees at the top of the hill – this time joined by a few Lesser Black-backed Gulls, all rising, swirling, calling and warning as three Ravens flew over and began circling, scavenging for whatever they can find.

12th October 2021 / Temp: 14 C / Water Level : Med-Low

Bright sunlight, fresh chill breeze, clear skies, a perfect autumn morning for walking and checking the river bank for Otter spraint. We were immediately struck by the amount of bird song as we crossed towards the river. It appears to be the perfect mixed habitat for the smaller garden birds – Chaffinch, Robin, Wren, Blackbird, Long-tailed and Blue Tits, etc as there is an abundance of cover from hedges, fruit trees as well as a broad belt of trees and shrubs along the boundary as well as a good number of full-grown alders, willows and hawthorns along the river bank. After the near silence of the bird empty fields of the previous couple of days, it was a delight to be walking in bird song.

No sign of Otter as we walked along but when we reached the wild area of stacked logs, nettle beds, giant mullein and clumps of still flowering comfrey we were astonished at the number of insects – honey bees, bumblebees, hoverflies, moths and ladybirds buzzing around, feeding on the nectar of soaking up the sun! All those lovely pollinators keeping the apple trees fruiting and providing fodder for the birds – a heartwarming sight.

Hoverfly (Syrphus sp.)

As we arrived at the first beach we were delighted to see a Dipper flying away upstream although sad that we had disturbed it in what appears from previous sightings to be a favoured fishing spot. A good omen as just a few minutes later we found the first sight of Otter, recent spraint on the usual flat slab of stone. Sadly, this was to be the only spraint along the whole stretch of this particular survey area, despite careful and hopeful searching.

Common Nettle-tap Moth

More insects as we made our way to the next beach – a common green shieldbug soaking up the sun, a potato leafhopper sharing a leaf with a dungfly, and what may have been a chalcid wasp of the Torymidae family as well as a good many Harlequin ladybirds and their pupae scattered across the leaves of low branched trees. Sad to say no native ladybirds – concerning how the invasive species seem to taking hold.

Walking back across the pasture we caught sight of a Little Egret flying in an arc overhead as it left our stretch to return the river further upstream. They are such beautiful snow-white birds, looking almost cumbersome in flight in comparison with their supremely elegant stance standing stock still in the shallows seaching for fish.

11th October 2021 / Temp: 14.5 C / Water Level : Low

Another gloriously sunny afternoon and having checked the cattle were at the far end of the field, we began searching the river bank and beaches for Otter spraint. Sad to say we drew another blank, no sign of Otters at any of the three sites, and although we were heartened to see a pair of Grey Wagtail flying up and down above the weir, we felt rather down after inspecting the last beach. However, we decided to sit and enjoy the sunshine – who knows it could be the last gasp before autumn gets really cold.

Almost dozing with the hot sun on our backs, idly watching and listening to the mesmerising sight and sound of the tumble of the river, we almost missed the flash of startlingly blue wings of a Kingfisher flying across the river not more than 18, 20 or so yards away from us! He disappeared into the low branches of a sycamore on the opposite bank and we stared waiting, expecting him to flash upstream from his perch. Imagine our delight and astonishment at the loud splash, almost like a good sized stone dropping into the water, as the Kingfisher dived, reappeared in seconds and again disappeared into the leaves!

Again and again he dived until we lifted our binoculars at just the wrong moment and he was off disappearing downstream, a brilliant flash of blue! Extraordinarily, he was barely lost to view before another Kingfisher shot past, coming downstream and took up position where we saw the first bird fly from! We could hear but couldn’t see him diving for some time before he also sped past, back upstream, his wings glowing, almost sparkling in the sunshine.

Linocut – copyright : LOU TONKIN, Cornish artist

We have seen Kingfishers on the nearby lakes perched on a branch and diving into the water, often, but not always, emerging with a small fish in its beak and we have seen Kingfishers innumerable times, up and down the river, but this is the first time we have caught sight of them in the act of fishing the river. A wonderful sight worth waiting for which made us forget all about the lack of Otter signs and which we we always treasure.

We rather reluctantly got up to leave the beach and were disconcerted to see what we hadn’t noticed with our backs to the field – a long line of cattle ambling across the meadow forming a neat barricade between us and the gate out of the field! Rather than race them to the gate we decided to cross the field behind the stragglers and climb the wibbly wobbly leaning gate into the next field.

A good move, just walk slowly and calmly, the bull was in the middle of the herd, heading towards the far field, no problem….. except as we were half way across the field, the cattle turned around and watched us and then began ambling back! By the time we reached the gate the bull, now at the head of the herd, was only 3-4 yards away and our scramble as we wobbled and nearly fell as the gate, lurching first one way and then another, made our precarious climb on the panicky side, but oh the relief – before any of them got to us we were over and safe!! The bull and the rest of the herd gathered around the gate and stood watching us as we called a cheery goodbye and walked away. A farmer in the same position would have slapped the bull on his rump, chatted and turned his back and walked in front of him without a second thought – what a pity we are not farmers.

How calm the fields looked, how beautiful the ash tree bathed in sunshine, how welcome the sight of a clump of field mushrooms, a delightful distraction as we gathered a couple of handfuls for our supper at the end of what had turned out to be a memorable day by the river!

10th October 2021 / Temp: 18 C / Water Level: Low

Beautifully warm, sunny afternoon – astonishingly warm for the second week in October! It was delightful to saunter along the river bank searching for Otter spraint, so quiet, just the cackle of Jackdaws flying over, what a wonderful sound they make, and the mew of a couple of circling Buzzards.

We were pleased to see a Heron, the first for some time along this stretch of the river and then a beautiful Little Egret lifting off but few other birds, just Blackbirds and Robins apart from the usual Pheasants, Crows and Wood Pigeon. We were surprised to see not only a Common Darter but also an Emperor dragonfly patrolling the river as well as a Red-legged Shield Bug clambering around on the grass.

Unfortunately, despite our best efforts, no sign of Otter anywhere, not even old and dry crumblies. We haven’t been able to risk this site for six weeks or so due to the bull being in the field with young heiffers. We are almost sure he is safe but the “almost” which puts us off!

Still a few lingering water forget me not and trifid-bur marigold in flower and as we watched the dragonflies darting by we caught sight of a Kingfisher flashing upstream, his colours vivid and astonishingly bright in the low afternoon sun – magical!

29th September 2021 / Temp: 15 C / Water Level: Med

A brief trip to check the bridge at Oldford to see how Somerset Bridge Department had dealt with the damaged stone pillar and broken rails after the safety barriers erected to offer some protection had been thrown into the river. We were really pleased that the contractors appointed by Somerset County Council had been able to come so quickly after we had reported the damage, although rather disappointed that the railings hadn’t been repaired/replaced. However, replacing the missing safety barriers is a great improvement.

Whilst we were there we checked the riverside for Otter spraint but after so much rain the water had risen considerably since our last visit and covered the stones and bridge pier so no signs of Otter. A great many wasps, bees, hoverflies and noon flies all flocking around the flowering ivy.

Hoverfly (Myathropa florea)

The Myathropa florea hoverfly is always rather striking, and is often seen around ivy flowers at the end of summer. Evidently its larvae live in rot holes or cavities of decaying leaves amongst roots at the base of trees of which there are many at the top of the river bank. We are often struck by the varieties of trees in such a small area which include larch, oak, horse chestnut, ash, alder and even a full sized sequoia!

Hawthorn Shieldbug

We hadn’t noticed a hazel amongst the trees until we caught sight of the Hawthorn Shieldbug which its distinctive markings, as if someone has left a toffee on its back which has dribbled a mixture of drips and blobs!

Strawberry Snail (Trochus striolatus)

The only other creature which caught the eye was this small snail which we hazard Strawberry snail as an identification. We’ve posted it on iRecord and if the id is corrected, we will correct it here.

No sign of any bird life – no water fowl but no other birds either which was surprising as the day was sunny and not cold, but it was extremely windy so perhaps that had deterred them.

A view of the bridge on the undamaged side of the road. The road is very narrow and carries quite a steady stream of cars so it does make walking across the bridge pretty hazardous and we, like most other walkers, step off the road, perch on the raised concrete ledge and lean on the railings to keep clear of the traffic so at least one side of the bridge is safe for pedestrians.

18th Septeber 2021 / Temp: 20 C / Water Level: Low

American Signal Crayfish

Messin’ about on the river with our son and grandsons – what could be more fun! They are pretty indifferent to wrigglies so that attempting a kick survey was not on the cards although they were very happy to use the buckets, trays and nets for what they consider the business of the day – a’ hunting of the crayfish!

Who says that children have a short concentration span? They were relentless as they stumbled on the hidden stones and boulders, up and down the river, wellington boots full of water, soaking wet shorts shrieking with glee, shouting with triumph, standing in the middle of the river with the fast current swirling around them gazing awestruck as they excitedly demanded we look at the size of this huge and scary whopper! The crayfish looked less than amused and even possibly rather cross (see above).

Bullhead (sometimes called Millers Thumb)

Two Kingfishers flashed past which earned barely a glance, a Grey Wagtail flew up to what is a favourite perch on the river and executed an impressive handbrake turn when he saw the crowd. We saw Small White and Small Tortoiseshell butterflies, a string of ponies crossing the bridge being led by a rider, we found Bullheads and small fry none of which could be allowed to interfere with the serious business of the day – catching the dratted crayfish. They are the bane of our lives, undermining river banks with their tunnels and contributing to the sedimentation of the river, killing native White Clawed crayfish either with the plague they carry or by dominating the habitat. Our eagle-eyed grandson who misses very little, noticed that one of the crayfish had white eyes. Searching the internet on returning home we discovered that this could have been a mutation or, perhaps more plausibly, a sign of the highly infectious species of fungus Aphanomyces astaci, the plague referred to which attacks the soft tissue, including the eyes.

But all of this is nothing to our intrepid hunters out on a mission and finding creatures which are extremely plentiful, look strikingly ferocious and are very easy to catch!

Horny Orb Mussel (or European Fingernail Clam)

But then…. how can anyone not be impressed when one rampaging hunter bends down and picks up a pale yellow shell, not more than 4mm in size and holds it out in the palm of his hand. We find lots of these shells on the water line of beaches but we noticed that this one was a complete closed bivalve so we put in the tray. When we came to examine our catch later, the shell had opened and a single foot had stretched out and was clinging to the side of the tray. A live Horny Orb Mussel – a bioindicator of not too polluted water – the first we had ever seen!! What a brilliant find – what a wonderful grandson – what a marvellous day!!

7th September 2021 / Temp: 29 C / Water Level: Low

Forgive the appalling photograph but the best my little snap camera could manage in capturing a beautiful Dipper fishing downriver from us. We were perched on our stools, peering into our tray of treasures from a half-hearted attempt at a kick survey, when what looked like a male Dipper flew upstream, perched one legged on a convenient stone, and began to examine the water.

He seemed totally unaware of us, remained stock still for quite some time, possibly resting but eventually he flew across the river found another suitable stone and began his usual Steve Smith at the crease impersonation, bobbing, and bobbing and bobbing! It must be the answer because he soon stuck his head under the water and began feeding in earnest. So intent was he that he ignored our raised binoculars, camera and murmurs of delight and continued contentedly picking away at whatever he was finding under and around the stones.

Net-spinning Caddis larva

Judging by the number of mayfly nymphs and caddisfly larvae we had been finding he wouldn’t be short of food. The mayfly nymphs looked rather small and thin but the fat net-spinning Caddis larvae (Hydropsche pellucidula) must surely make a tasty morsel for any discerning Dipper!

We found Flat-bodied Heptageniidae (stone clingers – possibly Yellow May), Olives Baetidae as well as the mayfly larvae, lots of Gammarus (freshwater shrimps) and a couple of leeches although as far as we know Dippers don’t feed on the latter two species, possibly shrimps at least swim far too fast.

Dipper country…

What a difference a week makes – the temperature a mere seven days ago a chilly 15 C with a blustery north-easterly win and today a balmy 29 C with a soft south westerly breeze! A beautiful afternoon, hot sun burning the field but wonderfully cool under the trees, listening to the gurgle and chattering river rushing past tumbling over the stones of the ancient ford and watching the wind play with the leaves of the willow and alders on both banks. Good to be peering into trays of wrigglies, glancing up in time to see a Kingfisher flash past low over the water and watch the small white butterflies fluttering over the water and up into the trees.

7th September 2021 / Temp : 20 C / Water Level: Low

Gum boots and buckets, trays and dipping nets, sieves and spoons, cameras and anti-bacterials, stout sticks and notebooks, all essential items for a mooch by the river and a scooping up of wrigglies, and, if you are very, very fortunate, a beloved daughter willing to give up a day to help. Oh the relief – younger, fitter, sharper eyed, who can scramble up and down river banks with ease and spot what we have missed and tireless in sweeping vegetation, river weed, kicking gravel and stones from the river bed – marvellous!

Lots and lots of the usual mayfly and net-spinning caddis larvae in every net, counted and logged, even more tiny fishes, too small to be sure of identification but counted anyway, minute worms, but then we found a prize!

Platambus maculatus c. Rebecca Muirhead

A diving beetle not previously found, a Platambus maculatus, with its subtle colours and beautiful markings which we eventually managed to corner long enough to photograph (it took two of us – we can confirm it swims fast, very, very fast!!). It is common and widespread throughout the country where it lives on vegetated margins of rivers and eaten by trout. Not a rarity but a great find. Note: iRecord hasn’t checked it but iNaturalist has accepted the species identification and given it Research grade status.

More little fishes but surprisingly we didn’t catch one freshwater shrimp when upriver we catch so many they become a bother separating them from more interesting finds. The margins turned out to be a good source of new species – including a water measurer (Hydrometra stagnorum) what looked like orange millipedes (3 but unidentified), a faucet snail (Bithynia tentaculata) .

We were all fascinated when my daughter spotted a tiny caddis larva, possibly left too long in the tray, begin to forage for plant debris and other detritus which it then assembled around itself, a small fragment at a time. Caddis larvae live underwater for most of their lives, where they make cases by spinning together stones, sand, leaves and twigs with a silk they secrete from glands around the mouth. Some live in them, discarding and constructing ever larger ones as they grow, some are free swimming and only build a case to shelter in whilst they pupate. This one was so small, it might have been building its first shelter; it seems quite extraordinary the lengths such tiny creatures go to to survive and mesmerising to watch.

We did take breaks from peering to wander around the beach, checking on large stones and grass tussucks for Otter spraint without success, but my daughter spotted a tiny brown frog, a single Beautiful Demoiselle female damselfy and a dragonfly, there were lots of bees, hoverflies and, as always very noticeably at this time of the year, craneflies.

Beautiful Demoiselle damselfly (female) c. Rebecca Muirhead

We also checked on the number of birds – very few – we were rather relieved to see a Cormorant perched in their favourite tree at the far end of the field because we didn’t see any other water birds. Blackbirds, Crows, Wood Pigeons and a Magpie seemed the only birds around until my daughter spotted the Buzzards flying overhead – it looked like a family party of five and, happily, walking back beside the river we spotted a pair of Grey Wagtails below the weir. Impossible to know if this is the same pair which we have seen on occasion since spring but if so we have yet to see signs of successful breeding. Whilst we were watching the birds, my daughter scrambled down the track made by the Otters climbing up the steep bank and found clear signs of fresh anal jelly.

Amphibious bistort c. Rebecca Muirhead

Further on the Otter spotting front, rather shameful to report that although both my husband and I had checked the shallow beach for Otter spraint before we began the kick-survey and found nothing, just before we were leaving and my daughter was emptying the species tray she spotted, yes you guessed it, a clear red fresh spraint! Oh dear…. However, we were at least able to spot 2 seperate deposits of fresh Otter spraint on either side of the bridge piers, one with 2 crayfish pearls – so good to see so many signs that the Otters are still here and seemingly thriving!

1st September 2021 / Temp: 15.5 C / Water Level: Low

The north-easterly wind not quite so strong but still hanging around and pulling the temperature down over the last week but the sun shone, if intermittently, and we were beguiled at the beginning of the Otter survey by Swallows still swooping around the buildings and the narrow carrier stream from the old flood workings a mass of flowering plants in a line across the water meadow.

The stream is barely visible beneath the tangle of which we managed to identify nearly twenty plants in flower: purple loostrife, woody nightshade, bindweed, water mint, angelica, leafy hawkweed, yarrow, stitchwort, valerian, teasel, white dead nettle, stinging nettle, creeping thistle, great willowherb, gypsywort, redlegs, comfrey, great willowherb and water forget-me-knot and water-cress!

Our spirits were further raised by spotting fourteen fresh Otter pad marks in the soft mud of the first beach, disturbing 10 Mallard who, as usual, complained in the most unreasonable fashion at our intrusion as they flew off.

At the next site even better, more pad marks as well as 4 fresh and 5 recent sets of Otter spraint and the 5 Mandarin who flew up at our approach did so silently – almost inscrutably one might even say! As we walked along the edge of the river, although screened by trees and shrubs in full leaf, we still disturbed the main flock of Mandarin – we counted at least 50 as they rose and flew across the fields to find a more secluded spot. Quiet they might be but the sound of such a sheer number of wings meant they were unable to make a silent escape! Was it the Mandarin which alerted a small flock of Ravens to take to the sky? Five in all – adults and juveniles? Difficult to be sure but so lovely to hear their friendly chattering to each other as they flew overhead.

Another trek, another beach – and what a beach! At the far end of our Otter survey sites, the longest walk, the most difficult barbed wire fences to negotiate, the most uneven, tussocky long grass where we usually arrive battered by low hanging branches, stung by nettles, scratched by a combination of barbed wire, rose briars and strands of bramble trailing under-foot across the path to trip the unwary or caught in our hair when we are studying the ground! But oh the reward – Otters just love this hidden beach and we usually find the most spraint there. Today was no exception – Eight fresh spraint (which often means more than one Otter) six recent and two old – crayfish claws, crayfish pearls and all the usual detritus of their latest meals scattered across the stones and pebbles, some easily spotted a strong orange red-rust from the crayfish but some black, glistening or dull and more difficult to see. It’s lovely scrambling around, eyes darting everywhere, listening to the river riffling and tumbling at this point, sun on our backs and all thought of tiredness completely forgotten!

A pair of beautifully marked Tipula lateralis Crane flies (mating so still enough for a change to get a good shot) who had found a perfect spot dangling down from the river bank. In a small cave at the foot of the bank, half hidden, were two Large Red slugs Arion rufus, only one of which was red! A long walk back being necessary we were forced to shift our stumps and very reluctantly leave the beach and head home. But the scramble up the bank did bring a rather surprising reward in the shape of a Glandular Globe thistle – a plant previously unknown to us.

Unfortunately the photograph simply doesn’t convey quite how spectacular the flowerhead is (or the height of the plant and size of the prickly leaves for that matter) but as it is an unusual find in such an unlikely place we thought it worth recording. They can live for 30 years so this may be an old plant which would account for its size – the fact that it usually flowers July-August, a period we often miss on our monthly survey, maybe why we have never noticed it before.

A Small Tortoiseshell, three Speckled Wood, a Meadow Brown and six Small White butterflies accompanied us across the sunny fields towards home – weary but oh so happy to be alive on such a day in such a place!!

31st August 2021 / Temp: 14.5 C / Water Level: Low

How often we have complained about the cattle trampling down the plants on our favourite beach with its full-grown ancient willow trees and massed flowers in summer.  Well, this is what it looks like when the cattle haven’t been in the field for some time!  Looking down to the river and, once we had scrambled down and edged our way through the less dense areas of undergrowth, looking up to the river bank!  

It’s the yellow season!  Swathes of saracens woundwort and tansy fill the beach, almost swamping the reeds, water mint, purple loosestrife and water forget-me-not.  Wonderful for the bees and hoverflies (of which there were countless numbers) not so good for the drangonflies and damselflies, only two seen – a single lonely male Banded Demoiselle and a Migrant Dragonfly.  No other insects either, which given the amount of flowers was unexpected.

No water birds (in fact apart from a pair of Grey Wagtails and a Buzzard we saw no other birds at all).  A few grasshoppers leaping about and we spotted a green shieldbug in its summer colours but very little life – maybe they were put off by the unseasonably chilly and pretty lively north-easterly wind!

What did catch the eye were the Euura proxima larvae which were feeding on the narrow-leaved willows causing these knobbly coffee bean shaped galls.  Evidently they transect the leaf blade but grow more on the upper surface according to what we have read.  We often see them but not usually quite so red.

Heading for home we eventually managed to spot some Otter spraint on some stones near the river edge which wasn’t swamped by plants and more near the weir and 4 fresh spraint under the bridge together with crayfish remains so all is not lost – at least there are Otters about.

4th August 2021 – Sad to report a dead Otter was found last evening lying by the side of the road close to the river.  Arrangements were made to bag and convey it to Jo Pearse of the Somerset Otter Group in Glastonbury where she will ensure it is delivered to the Cardiff University Otter project people who will carry out a post mortem. 

3rd August 2021 / Temp: 20 C / Water Level: Med

Full sun and a beautiful afternoon to explore our last Otter survey sites of the month along a quiet stretch of the river.  Hazel nuts are already dropping and the meadows have an end of summer air, straw coloured grasses heavy with seed, hugely tall mulleins with most of the blossoms dropping, but enough flowers in bloom to interest the hoverflies and bees on the bramble (10+), Himalyan Balsam (10+) and Comfrey (10+) a few on the welted thistle but none at all on the spear thistle, rather surprisingly.  A few butterflies about – Meadow Browns, Small Whites, Speckled Woods, Commas and Red Admirals.  2 Brown Hawkers were the only dragonflies and there were only a few Banded Demoiselles as far as we could see which was surprising on such a sunny day.

Juvenile Cormorant with white chest feathers

Very little activity on the water – they must have stopped working from home!  We disturbed a group of four Mandarin but the two Heron we spotted were in the middle of the water meadow on the opposite bank and there was only a single juvenile Cormorant on sentry duty on the top of a dead Alder tree.  There are a number of trees along the bank similarly afflicted by a type of fungus, Phytophthora.  Sometimes known as alder dieback, the disease is more noticeable in summer as the leaves of affected alders are abnormally small and yellow and often fall early.  Alders perform such a crucial job in flood mitigation along river banks where its roots help to prevent soil erosion so the spread of the fungus is a cause of growing concern.

When we arrived at the final site without finding any signs of Otter we were glad to perch on our folding stools and have a restful few minutes.   Surprising what you see when jus’ sittin’!  We idly watched the flies around the stones on the beach, continuously flying in, settling momentarily then flying off again in an ever moving swarm.  We had time to examine them through our butterfly binoculars and noticed that the sawn off appearance of the wing tips on some of the flies also sported a white splodge (a technical term!).

Semaphore flie

These were semaphore flies (Poecilobothrus nobilatus) we discovered when we reached home.  Evidently one of the most researched insects because they are easy to identify and there are a lot of them!  It’s a pity the photograph doesn’t show their beautiful colouring, lime green eyes and thorax looking burnished in the full sun.

We learned that they are called semaphore flies because the males fly down and stand opposite the female, fluttering and signalling with their white tipped wings.  If the female is interested they will mate but if she is not she will simply fly away.  It appears that with female flies size is everything as they always chose the largest males with whom to mate!

Well rested we move off the beach, looking carefully where we put our feet,  when to our surprise we spotted what we had missed earlier – fresh Otter spraint!  It was small, possibly a cub or female Otter, red and chock full of crayfish shell – the change from winter black to summer red does seem to follow the abundence of crayfish.  As mentioned, it’s interesting to notice what there is to see if we sometimes stop and stare!

22nd July 2021 / Temp: 23 C / Water Level: Low

9.55am Another beautiful heat-wave morning and we ran a bit late as we hoped to get our Otter survey done before the sun became too hot for us to bear but by the time we reached the river it was already very hot and along this stretch of the river there was not much shade but the Chub, growing bigger by the week, and leisurely swimming slowly up and down, for all the world like a fishy passeggiata, seem to be unbothered by the heat.

Brown Hawker copyright Tony Hisgett

The Brown Hawkers seemed equally oblivious – skimming up and down the riverside plants, in their everlasting hunt for food, we watched first one and then the two more who joined in.  They are so large we were constantly catching sight of them and expecting to see a small bird, a wren maybe or evena kingfisher dashing by.  The dainty, delicate Banded Demoiselles, Blue-tipped and Common Blue Damselflies went about their business totally oblivious to the bully boys amongst them. 

Purple Loosestrife

As we checked for Otters (no signs) and collected our water samples, we listened to the Green Woodpecker echoing across the meadows and a Raven calling his distinctive greeting as he flew overhead.  We admired the clumps of water forget-me-not almost hidden in the thick border of reeds, the beautiful purple loosestrife A steady stream of leaves fell from the riverside trees into the river almost entirely alder and willow although there were hawthorn and blackthorn.  No doubt the very early leaf fall was due to the nearly week-long heat wave where the heat of the sun was so intense.

Forget-me-not amongst the reeds

However, the predominant sight which met us when we arrived and before we could carry out our survey was upsetting in the extreme.  Reluctant as we are to bring news of such devastation to our celebration of our beautiful local river, we cannot just let it pass by without comment.  Cartons, food packaging, drink cans, plastic bottles, socks, plastic bags, towels, plastic wrappers, tin foil barbecue containers, beer cans and bottles strewn over a large area all along the river bank.  In the centre of the field were three large dustbins bags full to the brim and spilling their contents of yet more picnic detritus onto the meadow. 

Seeing the cows and bull at the far end of the field we had no choice but to collect all the rubbish, making sure we collected every plastic bottle top, medicine package, crisp packet or anything else which might be harmful to the domestic or wild animals which frequent the field (although we did draw the line at picking up discarded plasters and we were unable to remive the plastic bottles thrown into the river as they were too far out for us to reach.

Given that this is private farmland regularly used for grazing cattle and the bank and river are owned by the local Frome & District Angling Association one would have imagined that tresspassers who swim and picnic would at least leave the river, bank and field as they found it but it appears that is not the case.

As for the water samples, the readings were much as expected, the Nitrates were above the safety level and Phosphates considerably higher than that and of course both much higher than that recommended by the Water Framework Directive. 

21st July 2021 / Temp: 22.5 C / Water Level : Low

White-legged Damselfly

9.05 am – Clear sunny morning after a hot muggy night and we’re off on an Otter hunt!  Not expecting to see the animal, we are never that lucky, but hoping to see spraint or pad marks or signs of them passing by.  Sadly just one sighting under the bridge, all other sites were Otter free.

The river looked beautiful, sparkling in the sunshine, the damselflies fluttering over the water, all through the riverside reeds and purple loosestrife – 2 or 3 White-legged, 13 Banded Demoiselles, a handful of Beautiful Demoiselles and a large, very important looking Brown Hawker patrolling his patch, looking very masterful!

There were also 9 Small White and 4 Small Tortoiseshell butterflies, 8 ladybirds (almost entirely Harlequins), loads of grasshoppers and we counted 10 soldier beetles before we gave up as they seemed to be on every plant! 

Not many birds – a Buzzard circling, a busy Wren close to the river, a couple of Mallard scooting off at our approach with lots of noisy complaints, a lovely Goldfinch and at last the reward – a Kingfisher flashed past!!

17th July 2021 / Temp : 29 C / Water Level : Low

It was extremely hot and almost tropical in the house and the clear skies made for burning sun and a longing for the cool shade of the tree lined river.  We headed to the water to check along the beaches and banks for signs of Otter but despite our best efforts, we didn’t spot a single pad mark or spraint or even the tell-tale crayfish remains.

However, what we did see was a joy – we discovered river limpets for the first time!  We found loads of shells on the beach river line further upstream but we have never before found any actually living in the river, attached to stones, so we reconciled ourselves to the belief that the shells had been washed downriver from one of the tributaries.  But here they were – so incredibly small and so difficult to spot but once we found one we found many others, although disappointingly they also proved too difficult for my little camera to capture a clear image – hence the unfocused photo here! 

Naturespot writes:  A bottom living species found in unpolluted running water where it adheres to the sides of stones in moderate flows. Sensitive to pollution but is usually excluded from suitable habitat only by chronic pollution as it will normally recolonize lost territory after incidents.  This was extremely interesting to us as the water test showed a sharp increase or spike in phosphate pollution since our last test a mere 8 days ago so we were concerned that these limpets and the caddis fly larvae might be harmed.

We were surprised to see so few butterflies or in fact insects of any description – a couple of banded demoiselles, 5 small white and 1 meadow brown butterfly being the sum total of the afternoon.  Similarly apart from a family of Crows attacking a Buzzard, a few Wood Pigeons and Gulls and one Wren it looked as if that would be the lot, but when we were working the river close to the bank a Kingfisher shot past downriver, missing one of us by centimetres, and minutes later he shot back upriver again giving us a full view of his beatiful feathers, who could ask for more – river limpets and Kingfishers! 

9th July 2020 / Temp: 19 C / Water Level: Low

Fortunately the rain held off and we were able to spend part of the morning testing the water for phosphorus and nitrates as part of the BART Waterblitz project. It was disturbing to note the high levels of both (2.00 ppm and 40 ppm respectively) which must effect the health of the river. Some creatures are able to tolerate that level of pollution, for example some of the Mayflies, Caddisflies, Dragonflies, fish and crayfish etc but some cannot.  So that while we see a great number of Ephemera danica, both as larvae and as mayflies plus Yellow May larvae, we never see Yellow Sally Mayflies which are believed to be very susceptible to organic pollution.  On the other hand, species like the Blue Winged Olive, which are very susceptible to phosphorus so we wouldn’t expect to see any but we have recorded both larvae and mayflies in the river.

What was also very noticeable was that the water was colourless but, predominantly on the edge of the river, the moss and stones were covered with a substantial layer of sediment which turned the fresh green moss-covered stones mid-stream into brown, sludgy unsightly brown on the slower bankside water. This is borne out by never seeing the Southern Iron Blue Mayfly which are susceptible to sediment.

Standing calf-deep midstream watching the water rushing past one is reminded yet again that this isn’t a majestic river like the Danube with it’s huge commercial vessels ploughing all before, pushing steadily downstream, or commanding awe like the Sava, creating giant jagged slabs of snow covered ice along its banks in winter, full of pleasure boats and water skiers in summer, it’s not even deep and wide and serene like the Thames, carrying rowing eights with their beefy oarsmen and diminutive cox with a loud hailer almost larger than their heads – this is an intimate river, which, like an over-excited child, is always full of chatter.  It never stops telling anyone who will listen the tales it has to tell, of the amazing things it has seen on its dash across country through villages and town, through farms and nature reserves and all the magical creatures it nurtures.   As it tumbles over stones, like stumbling over words, runs deep and black and mysterious before weirs and shouts loudly over the rush and splash and thunder, that if you stop and look, really look, you will discover that here “there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” 

Wading back to the bank we walk along the edge of the luxuriant high summer growth of the feathery seed heavy reeds bending low beneath the weight, the opening common valerian, stately hogweed through which the damselflies which flash irridescent blue and emerald bodies with transparent or copper wings fluttering up and down, a small tortoiseshell butterfly, bees, hoverflies and swollen thighed flower beetle examining every bramble or ragwort flower, or craneflies hunting a convenient blade of leaf on which to rest, difficult when there are so many common wetland Amber snails clinging to reed stems displaying their spires with aplomb!

Our test completed, our wading done, we gathered sticks and binoculars, test kits and bottles and climbed the steep bank to the top.  Standing on the bank taking a last glimpse of the river sparkling in the sunshine, we were just in time to spot a kingfisher flashing downstream.  A perfect end to a perfect morning on the river!

1st July 2021

We are most grateful to receive a reply from the notable paleontologist Simon Carpenter who has kindly identified the fossil which our 9 year old grandson found in the river while we were doing our kick survey.

Simon Carpenter writes:

The fossil is a brachiopod – they are easily confused with shellfish or bivalves because they also have two shells. They are often found together as fossils in large numbers – this reflects that when alive, they lived in colonies on the sea floor attached by a foot-like structure or pedicle. The small circular opening at the narrow end of the shell allowed the foot to protrude from the shell. They were filter feeders and are still about today in our oceans (particularly the seas off Japan), but with less diversity. It looks like there is an oyster attached to the brachiopod. Brachiopods are particularly common in rocks of Middle Jurassic age and we have lots of these rocks around Frome.  They can also be hard to identify because different kinds/species of brachiopod are often very similar. Here are the details to go with the fossil:
 
Fossil brachiopod: Kallirhynchia species
Bathonian
Middle Jurassic
Approx 140 million years old
 
It’s difficult to tell who is the most excited by this news – us or our grandson!  It adds yet another dimension to our awareness of the whole system of the river, how the force of the water erodes particles out of the main matrix of the rock the river flows through revealing some of the life that used to exist in the Middle Jurassic period approximately 140 million years ago.   Very exciting!
 

26th June 2021 / Water Level: Low

The idyllic calm of a fine summer afternoon looking upstream where the river is clear and full of fish and even fuller of empty ripped pupa cocoons and tumbled tiny stones of the free swimming caddis larvae Rhyacophila dorsalis escaping their bondage and now flying free!

Downstream are two young boys their father and grandfather a’hunting the crayfish, each catch larger than the one before, catching Bullhead from a tiny fry, looking for all the world like a flying insect, to good sized (for Bullhead!) fish,

Bullhead c. Rebecca Muirea

and watching a single Cormorant diving and fishing totally oblivious of his audience of children and parents alike standing stock still, knee deep in the tumbling current until the bird, presumably well-fed eventually swam off downstream and soon lost to sight in the bend of the river.

Cormorant c. Rebecca Muirhead

Above the water meadow a pair of Kestrels were mobbing a Buzzard whilst two more Buzzards circled higher up in the sky keeping out of trouble!  We heard a Wren close by the bank complaining nosily at our intrusion and a Jay rattling from a tree near the carrier stream which may have alerted the Brown Hare to our presence because we caught sight of him racing down the line the stream to disappear towards the farm.  Very few butterflies, a large white and a small tortoiseshell looking rather lonely as they fluttered around.

A marvellous, memorable day, full of excitement and action, the boys stopping only to pour out their almost full wellington boots before thrusting soggy socked feet back into soaking wet boots and returning to the hunt.  And to crown what had been for a very happy but tired couple of boys a brilliant time messin’ about on the river was the younger one finding first a ramshorn snail and then this exquisite bivalve fossil.

We have found similar fossils but broken and incomplete but this one was a peach!  Fortunately the organiser of our Somerset Otter Group has a friend who is a notable paleontologist and suggests that we contact him for his thoughts on the find.  We can’t wait to hear what he has to say!

As the afternoon was drawing to an end, we oldies could think of nothing but a longed for cup of tea while the boys dragged their father off to the skate park – where do they get their energy from?!

2nd June 2021 / Temp:  20 C / Water Level: Med, falling

Mayflies!  It’s the season!  Everywhere we look, clinging to flower stems, stinging nettles, leaves of every description or caught in spiders’ webs, there is a mayfly clinging, hanging motionless.  Sitting on the river bank and watching the mayfly hatch on a warm early summer afternoon, what could be more mesmerising. The duns lifting and drifting to the reeds, those falling back into the river to flutter and fail, the leaping fish early in the season, or the lazy fish later just opening their mouths or completely ignoring them. The non-stop yo-yo mating dance of the spinners sometimes over the water or over the river bank, so thick it’s amost impossible to walk through – summer has arrived at last!

We were particularly thrilled to spot a Blue Winged Olive dun, rather sadly caught in a web, a tragic end to a joyful rise into the sunshine from the water after two years as a larva confined to the river, but exciting for us to see this species for the first time – one of the species indicative of unpolluted water.

Lots of damselflies joining in the flight, male and female banded demoiselles, beautiful demoiselles, blue-tailed, and common blues but still no signs of dragonflies – maybe too early.  No butterflies either, just one orange-tip and a solitary holly blue examining a large Otter spraint on the beach, but we did spot a nomad bee among the buff-tails and honey bees, what might have been a dagger fly and even a click beetle clinging to a blade of grass!

Little Egrets, a Heron, 29(!) Mandarin, 10 Mallard, a flock of Rooks and Jackdaws around the heiffers; a particularly loud Song Thrush singing from the tree, challenged by Whitethroat, Chaffinch, Chiff Chaff, Blackbird all giving full throat – a wonderful sound. 

We were so pleased to see a good number of Otter spraint at the first site, 5 fresh and 3 recent, more than we have ever seen which raised our spirits, lifted further by spotting two brown hares, running away from us and then squatting down, low on their haunches, even though they were not hidden as the meadow has been recently cut and hay gathered, but this year’s crop of maize should give good cover pretty soon.

Our next Otter site was even better – 7 fresh spraint, toffee-red and chock full of crayfish shell and pearls and 2 recent which raises the possibility of more than one Otter.  There were lots of fingernail clams and spiral water snail shells among the coarse sand on the waterline, a pond skater, male and female damselflies along the edge plants while in the water mayfly and damselfly nymphs, lots of freshwater shrimps of course, but also some intriguing small beetles, at least 25, which unfortunately were just too minute for us to identify. 

As we walked back across the stubbled water meadow we found what looked like a nest of pheasant eggs which had been run over by the farm vehicles – a common sight now that most farmers mow their hay fields twice a year, the first when the ground birds are still nesting.  As we neared the farm we watched with delight the rather more fortunate handful of Swallows streaming high and weaving low across the sky before disappearing into the barn, their beaks full of flies to feed their early brood.  Summer has arrived!!

31st May 2021 / Temp : 20 C / Water Level : Med. falling

A beautiful afternoon, sunshine and drifting fair weather fluffy clouds, the air full of blue tailed, banded and beautiful demoiselle damselflies, including several dark ink blue immature male demoiselles with caramel coloured wings, orange tip and red admiral butterflies and even a pair of Great Spotted Woodpeckers nesting in a tree close to the river.

copyright Rebecca Muirhead

It was a good time to get the second kick survey done and be out of the way before the coarse fishing season starts in a couple of days.  The water level in the river was also falling which makes it a good deal easier to negotiate, given that the current is fast and furious, tumbling over the stones of the remains of the old Roman ford at that point.  It usually has rich pickings and we were not disappointed but extremely pleased with our haul!  A caseless caddis, which Ian Wallace from iRecord kindly identified as Rhyacophilladae dorsalis, and what we think may well be its pupal skin abandoned on a stone when it left the river.

copyright Rebecca Muirhead

A good showing of Dragonfly and Mayfly larvae both Ephemera danica and Serratella ignita (both of which were rising from the river around us) several freshwater leeches, cranefly larvae, alderfly larvae (possibly the mud alderfly Sialis lutaria), uncountable numbers of freshwater shrimps, midge larvae, worms and river weed, the latter a thorough nuisance as everything hid under it.

copyright: Rebecca Muirhead

Lots of small humped Agapes cases secured to stones, they are extremely abundent here.  We are extremely ignorant and amateurish in our identification of these water creatures and what little we know has been garnered by hours spent pouring over the diagrams and re-reading the explanations in Ian Wallace’s excellent “Simple Key to Caddis Larvae” and the FSC Freshwater name trail but learning from books is very much second best to learning from experts in the field.  This is to excuse our lack of naming the Agapes species – as far as we know, unlike the caseless caddis, we haven’t been able to see one let alone photograph one!  The same applies to this little black creature, we have a photograph but it remains able to travel totally incognito as we have not the slightest idea what it is!

When we began to tire, we packed up all our paraphernalia, and made our way slowly back along the river bank and across the water meadow disturbing two pairs of Mandarin and one duckling, a Grey Wagtail, a Heron lifting laconically from the bank, a small flock of Herring Gulls with a Lesser Black-Backed gull amongst them passing overhead and a Red Kite, hanging around above the grass cutting machinery in the next field, hoping for a supper of small fat mammals fleeing the machines.

30th May 2021 / Temp: 20.5 C / Water Level : Med

On what promises to be a gloriously sunny Whitsun day we head to the river over burdened with rucksacks, kick nets, buckets, trays, cameras, binoculars and, most importantly of all, the picnic!  Our dear daughte,r having offered to give up a couple of days of her holiday weekend to help with our kick sample which is becoming really too difficult for us to manage on our own, deserved a reward which I offered as soon as we arrived at the river – gin and tonic iced lollies!   They were absolutely delicious, even though, melting fast, they dissolved into iced crush.  We toasted Beltane with many cries of “Happy Belters!” which set the mood for the afternoon. 

 Beautiful Demoiselle (f) – copyright Rebecca Muirhead

We had found fresh Otter spraint (with crayfish pearls) at our first site on the way to the beach, scatterings of crayfish remains every 2 yards stretching for 30 yards and more fresh spraint on the beach.  The beach was alive with damselflies, beautiful demoiselle, banded demoiselle and common blue, thick with flowers, red campion, cow parsley, buttercups, stitchwort, vetch all growing tall and so thick we had to edge through to make a narrow path through the undergrowth, and the mayflies were rising with a good number one after another and then another and yet more in a steady flight all afternoon – wonderful to see the river so alive and delightful to watch as we tucked into Mowbray pork pies, baguettes thickly spread with homemade pates, black olives and watermelon & feta salad.

Common Blue Damselfly (m) – copyright Rebecca Muirhead

We resisted the temptation to fall asleep in the sunshine with the only noise the soft soporific sound of the river tumbling and splashing over the stones, and set to, dragging the net through the long, green hair-like tendrils of the water weed and kept to the edge of the river, the main channel being too deep and fast to wade out to.

We struck gold!  Almost immediately we captured this small creature in our net and watched it careering around the shallow bucket at top speed.  A completely new species for us which we hope won’t be too difficult to identify – always a forlorn hope – a faint possibility it might be a net-spinning caddisfly larva but all these grub-like larva look so similar we may never find out! 

Note:  This larva (above) has been identified by Ian Wallace of iRecord as Rhyacophila dorsalis, a free swimming caseless caddis larvae, now been confirmed as present in both kick survey sites.

However a goodish haul – dragonfly, damselfly and mayfly larvae (many flattened mayfly nymphs including 2 Yellow May) as well as the caddis larvae, the usual huge number of freshwater shrimps, plus water fleas, fish eggs, both biting and non-biting midge larvae.  We weren’t able to carry out a full survey but working with what we had, it confirms that the water here meets the “moderately impacted” category, disappointing given the number of species indicating clean water, but not unexpected. 

Breeding season for nettle weevils seems to be in full swing, three Pied Wagtails flying ackwards and forwards across the river, and up into a tall tree, bringing food for their nestlings, three Mallard, one male and two females, 3 Wrens, a Great Tit and as the afternoon wore on 4 or 5 Swallows suddenly appeared, weaving around the trees, feeding, before flying off.  Short by incredibly sweet to see Swallows, harbingers of summer.  Checking the last site, we disturbed a Heron but there were few other birds and no butterflies and by now it was time to pack up.

All afternoon the farm machinery had been working the water meadow, cutting the hay, and as we walked back along the river bank we startled a Buzzard  threatening a Crows’ nest, it immediately flew up and away, being chased by both parent birds squawking loudly and shouting abuse.  Three other Buzzards circled above the lines of drying new mown hay, all on the lookout for prey, two Red Kites were also on the look-out, one quite low over the grass, another higher up and also circling and finally we spotted a Kestrel joining in the small mammal hunt.  None appeared to be successful whilst we were walking through.

A good crop of dandelions by the five-barred gate, each one filled with lots of fruitworm beetles crawling between the petals feeding on the pollen.  What a wonderful day to spend in the brilliant sunshine of early summer, away from all the cares and burdens of this long, seemingly endless plague, where our only concerns are river creatures and nestlings.

28th May 2021 / Temp: 18.5 C / Water Level: Med

Such a relief to get out along the river and check what’s new, what’s happening with the Otters.  After an unseasonably cold and dry April, it has been an unseasonably cold and wet May – horrible weather, almost autumnal but definitely October, grey and dreary so although the sky was overcast, at least it wasn’t raining!

After the bumper sightings of so much Otter spraint on last month’s survey along this stretch of the river, we had high hopes of finding lots.  Sadly, not the case.  When naturalists refer to Otters as wanderers, we can certainly second that, as despite almost crawling along with a large magnifying glass so carefully did we check every inch of the banks and beaches, we saw nothing but two dollops of recent spraint on the corner of the beach at the far reaches of our stretch of river.  This exceedingly frustrating sighting fills us with deep gloom – as the river beyond that point is not accessible to us an we have visions of an adult female Otter and her cubs cavorting about just out of sight around the bend in the river, chortling happily!

However, searching for spraint meant we were looking everywhere and spotted this beautiful longhorn beetle going by the magnificent name of Anaglyptus mysticus which sounds very much like mysterious wallpaper!  Whatever, he’s a handsome beast, whose larvae feed for two years in the dead wood of broad-leaved trees (we spotted him on nettles close by a wood pile) and after overwintering under the tree bark, emerge in April.

Very heartening to see both Swans with cygnets and Mandarin with at least four ducklings, Mandarin do very well here and their numbers are ever increasing, but whether that is because a householder farther upstream feeds them regularly or not is impossible to tell, but is extremely likely. We saw several pairs of Mallard but strangely no sign of young but they could of course have been hiding under tree roots in the river when they heard us approach.  Little Egret, Pheasant, Chaffinch, Wren, Robin, a pair of nesting Crows in their nest high up in a tree and even a cockerel making his presence known.

Alderfly

There seem to be a fair number of alderflies (left) this spring, which is always a good sign of a healthy river where their larvae can thrive. 

Another sign of reasonably clean water is the number of mayflies (we only saw the most common, Green Drake) clinging to grass stems and tall plants and low hanging leaves of the trees along the river bank.

Dock Shieldbug

We also spotted this half-drowned insect caught in the cleft of a teasel stem; we eventually identified it as a Dock Shieldbug, bamboozled by its amber body, almost glowing reflecting the golden buttercup, when we are so familiar with its more usual dull brown colouring and striking shape, although evidently its body does show red when in flight but we have never recognised it when flying.

We had a friendly and informative chat with the owner of the property who allows us access to his stretch of the river to carry out our monthly Otter survey.  He was telling us that he had received a letter from a women who had been an evacuee at the farm when she was a child and was hoping to visit later in the summer with her family.  It was still a working dairy farm when she had stayed there and she was longing to revisit and see if she could find reminders of her old haunts.  We hope to hear or read in the local newspaper an account of her visit which should be fascinating.

9th May 2021 / Temp: 15.5 C / Water Level: Low

Dark and gloomy afternoon – difficult to believe it is the second week in May, usually the most beautiful month of the year but not this year.  Easy to look around at the lifeless fields and grey sky and think this is what a plague inflicted country looks like, the temperature in the brief periods of sunshine warm but the wind cutting and more like March than May.  The contrast from last year couldn’t be more marked – then we were basking in day after day of brilliant sunshine and balmy temperatures, this year it is so cold we see few insects and again no damselfies.

No sign of Otter spraint either, although there were signs of recent spraint at the second site on a favourite stone underneath the bridge, so they are still roaming around.  Signs of what may be field voles in the field, piles of short nibbled grass stems scattered around one area close to the river bank, well away from the mole hills which line parts of the field.  Lots of birds, a Green Woodpecker yaffling from the nearby wood, longtailed tits, robins, blackbirds, great tits, and the usual flocks of gulls and two pairs of mallard.

Just as we were leaving, walkng across the water meadow, there suddenly appeared a flock of swallows and house martins – out of nowhere – the swallows skimming inches above the grass no doubt feasting on the yellow dung flies which are everywhere!  The weather may not feel like May, but Swallows and House Martins appearing for the first time, it must be!

2nd May 2021 / Temp: 14.5 C / Water Level: Low

A quick check along the water lily stretch of the river where we have been told we will find Red Eyed Damselflies, the males of which rest on the lily pads waiting to pounce on passing females.  No luck.  They usually appear from April onwards we have been led to believe but of course this year the weather has been unseasonably cold with ground frosts still covering the ground on some nights, and although the sun was warm, the wind was from the north east and decidedly chilly so perhaps the water temperature is too cold for them to appear.  No sign of Otter at either of our two survey sites, or in the centre of Frome either where they appeared to be spending the winter months, so perhaps they have moved upstream to quieter stretches of the river.

However, it was good to see that there were a good number of birds – a Little Egret, a breeding pair of Mallard, Rooks, Crows, Wood Pigeons, Pheasants and Gulls around and over the fields and Longtailed Tits, Blue Tits, Robins, Blackbirds, Chaffinches and Wrens busying themselves flitting backwards and forwards across the river and in and out of the trees.  Last year’s cygnet, now almost fully grown but showing traces of brown on its wings, joined later by an adult swan who flew in repeated circles round and round over the river, the sound of its wings in the still air creating a moment of pure magic.

The brilliant yellow of the marsh marigolds and buttercups, pale mauve ladies’ smock were enough to bring out the orange tip butterflies, several bumble bees and a single tortoiseshell butterfly and even a mayfly so surely the damselflies cannot be far behind.

We also found a small clump of wild garlic, and picked enough for the a chorizo & wild garlic tortilla for supper – delicious.

Full of good cheer, we walked to the second site and spotted two Wagtails, probably the same breeding pair we had seen upstream a few weeks ago.  Three Mallard, a Tree Creeper, Wren and female Chaffinch so bird life is on the move despite the arctic conditions!

22nd April 2021 / Temp: 10 C / Water Level: Low

Final round of this month’s Otter survey on yet another glorious April morning with the sun shining, the river sparkling and Blackbirds and Chaffinches serenading us as we walked. No signs of Otter at the first two sites and only two Mallard on the water. But when we reached the third site after disturbing 7 or 8 Mallard and a Mandarin from the beach we found both Otter spraint (one fresh and five recent) but also crayfish remains and lots of pad marks which was very good news. Alongside the pad marks were deer slots and much smaller prints, possibly muntjak. Normally there are several Swans, Canada Geese and Mandarin Ducks sharing this beach so when the animals come down to drink it must be pretty busy! We followed the badger path to the next site and spotted yet more more spraint on the grass on two separate places – fresh and recent – surely signs of more than one Otter?

We met the farmer on the edge of the next field, he was becoming increasingly concerned about the lack of rain in a month which the weather forecasters say might well be the driest on record. He wants to get his crop planted but with no sign of rain for the next ten days or so he says there is no point as if the seeds do germinate, they will just shrivel in the ground. In passing, he mentioned that there were lots of Hares around this year and when his son was out the previous evening with his night-vision binoculars he had spotted ten Hares in all. As he spoke, two Hares raced past us uphill across the madow and turned and watched us before crouching down until they were almost hidden in the grass. We chatted for a few minutes more and then watched as another pair of Hares dashed across the bleached field, almost golden in the sun!

We moved off, he to his work and us to check out the next site. As we arrived at the beach a Kingfisher flashed upstream and a Blackcap, perched on a branch over the river, treated us to his full repertoire. Always a bit of a clamber down onto this last beach but it usually repays our efforts and today was no exception – no less than four fresh spraint and five recent spraint desposited on five different stones across the beach! What a bonanza! We have seen more spraint along the whole of our survey stretch over this last week than we have seen for years. All very heartening.

On the walk back, rather tired, we suddenly spotted a Swallow, the first of the summer, skimming low over the grass. The meadow was scattered with dandelions (some with small bees heads buried in their centres), red deadnettle, chickweed and field speedwell and lots and lots of dung flies so the Swallows should have a feast day. I’ve read that they skim low over meadows like these so they can hoover up the dung flies – the wheel of life, cows = cow pats, cow pats = dung flies, dung flies = Swallows, on it goes.

The dry and dusty path along the top of the field with its hedge of blackthorn in full flower and hawthorns in tight bud with ground ivy, white deadnettle and periwinkle half hidden in the long lush grass made a lovely area for the butterflies, difficult to count the Orange Tips as they were never still but at least two males and one female and what looked like a Small White. A couple of pear trees were in full white delicate bloom and the small orchard of apple trees were in tight bright pink bud – we’re beginning to dream of summer.

Suddenly a Kestrel swooped up towards us, hovered for a few minutes overhead, and then flew away to perch on a telegraph wire. We had seen an eviscerated pheasant close to the river bank at the beginning of our walk. The scattering of the softer breast feathers some way away from the still fresh and bloodied bones shown signs of a tussle – probably fox, but we wondered if the Kestrel might have had a share of picking over the carcus.

20th April 2021 / Temp: 15 C / Water Level: Low

A beautiful morning, fresh, clear and full sun and although Otter signs along this stretch of the river have become increasingly rare, we still enjoy the walk and noticing the river and water meadows waking up to spring.

When we reached the weir we are always aware that we have seen Otter spraint only once (last March) in all the time we have been surveying. So imagine our astonishment when we saw first one, then two and eventually counted four recent spraints along the stones and on an ants knoll at the top of the weir. We had a bit of a spring in our step as we moved on to check the next site – a well worn area around the roots of an old tree and here we found one recent and two old spraint, all displayed prominently on several large roots – all pretty astonishing!

Walking through the water meadow to the next site we pass the trees lining the river bank and listened to the Chaffinches, Robins, Blackbirds, Chiff Chaffs, Wrens and Blue Tits singing from the trees, such a delightful sound on a sunny spring morning. One one of the trees we spotted what we think is possibly a Chocolate Mining bee sunning itself on the bark. They don’t appear until mid-April and are gone by the end of May so we don’t often see them, not enough to be sure. We were sure about the Common Carder bee and the Bee flies we saw in the same area although the photographs were disappointingly out of focus.

Another beach and astonishingly, more Otter spraint! Three recent and one old spraint, the first we have spotted since last May and before that in April and May 2019. There seems a pattern here! Although our enthusiasm is tempered with the memory of our excitement last year and the hope that the Otters were returning to what once had been a favourite spot, only to have our hopes dashed, so we are a bit more circumspect this time, they may have just been passing through – hoping for the best but prepared for the worst!!

There were at least a dozen alderleaf beetles on the old willow – not a good sign, there seem to be so many this year. We wandered up and down the beach, hovering in the hope of spotting a Kingfisher or even a Grey Wagtail but not sign of either. We did see a Tree Creeper, a Goldfinch, a pair of Mallard and on our walk up to the final site, spotted two Little Egrets and a Heron.

No sign of Otter at our final site, but our first buttercups of the year, a couple of Orange Tips (male and female) and a Brimstone butterfly and on the walk back a couple of Small Tortoiseshells. We spotted a Buzzard, heard a Raven and some Jackdaws, Pheasants of course and those dratted Wood Pigeons and Gulls but also a Dunnock.

Sunshine, birdsong, butterflies and a sparkling, dashing river trailing bright green river weed and the first tentative mayflies – how our spirits are lifted and life becomes not just bearable but positively hopeful once again.

18th April 2021 / Temp: 14.5 C / Water Level: Low

If you are fortunate enough to have 20 20 vision, you might be able to discern a pond skater in the top right hand corner of this lily pad! Not a great shot but the first of the season so it has earned its place.

After the extraordinary harvest of Otter spraint along the river a couple of days ago, we saw not the smallest sign of Otter all along the two sites we checked. However, it was a glorious day, warm and sunny so we enjoyed checking the river and water meadow for signs of life, hoping for perhaps an early damselfy but were content enough with the pond skater and a few pond snails, also clinging to the lily pads.

We watched an early crane fly puddling about in the mud on the edge of the river which was unseasonably low. April has been both much colder than usual but also much drier and for that reason the retreating water has exposed a much wider muddy beach than is often the case. We didn’t know quite what the crane fly was doing, fluttering and dipping, although we have read that crane flies do take minerals from muddy beaches so perhaps that was its purpose.

We find it almost impossible to tell one crane fly from another, particularly given the lack of clarity in our only photograph, but given the habitat and the time of the year there are not that many to choose from and so we tentatively suggest it might be a Tipula vittata which do in fact breed in mud on the edge of streams, rivers and lakes. It’s at times like these than I so envy the owners of macro lens cameras – the difference between looking through my close focusing binoculars and then through my point & snap camera is astonishing.

Ladies smocks are always a welcome sign of spring and in the area of the meadow which for a large part of the year is under water, there were a dozen or so plants although there wasn’t a sign of another plant across the whole of the rest of the field. As if on cue while looking at the ladies socks we soon afterwards spotted our first sighting of a male Orange Tip butterfly checking one for nectar. There was also a small clump of garlic mustard nestling in the shady area of long grass; it is often an unnoticed plant but if one looks carefully, the flowers are always so perfect – simple but beautifully pure.

Another sign of spring, the increasing sight of bees, here there were several bees on the dandelions which covered the meadow, Ashy Mining bee and what was possibly a Hairy Flower Bumblebee, also an early visitor, difficult to be sure as it was buried so deep in the flower head it was difficult to decipher – whatever, it’s just so lovely to see them.

Ashy Mining Bee

Always a joy along rivers is the peep peep warning note of the Kingfisher, “here I come” followed almost immediately by a bot of blue, a flash of orange, and gone, leaving an image on the retina which can be carried for hours. We were lucky to spot this bird flashing upstream then later back downstream and later still upstream again – magical. It was also good to see a few more water birds for a change, two Little Egrets, a Heron, two Swans, a female Mallard, we heard a Coot and spotted a solitary Mandarin Duck. There is a large flock of Mandarin further upstream so maybe they are becoming more widespread.

We were so pleased to see them all, so many times when we have walked this particular stretch of the river, apart from the occasional gaggle of Mallards there have been so few water birds.

Watching the families of small birds darting from branch to branch, tree to tree we spotted Great Tits, Long Tailed Tits, Wrens, Blue Tits, two Tree Creepers and heard Blackbirds and Chaffinches.

As we were watching a Buzzard circling and mewing high overhead, we were surprised to see it joined much lower down, barely clearing the tree tops, by one of the Swans which also began flying in continuous circles above the river, the sound of its powerful wings in flight echoing across the water meadows.

Crows and Rooks joined in the fly over, together with gulls, too high to identify, but the sound of the Green Woodpecker yaffling in the distance was loud and clear enough for anyone to hear.

Whether it was the longed for sun at last having some warmth which has brought all the birds out after what has seemed a very long winter an an unseasonably cold early April, is impossible to tell, but whatever the reason – we saw more bird species busying themselves along and around the river than we have seen for time. Signs of a promising year to come we hope. But whatever the year brings, it was a joy to soak up the sun and wallow in the pleasure of surviving this long, long, plague filled winter and know that the warm days of summer are still before us. So reluctant were we to leave the river that if a dark grey cloud hadn’t blotted out the sun and the north-easterly wind reminded us that it was still spring, we might be there still!

Finally, we cannot think of April along the river without mentioning the wonderfully thick clumps of Marsh Marigolds (or Kingcups) scattered along the edges of the streams and ditches, their large, deep golden flowers out-rivalling the lesser celandines which are beginning to fade and heralding the buttercups which are yet to arrive.

Writing about fading lesser celandines reminds me of the flowers we frequently see at this time of the year. They catch the eye with their white petals and yellow centre and often is the time when I have thought we have spotted a new, rare flower and then notice they are only celandines, fading as they grow older. We know how it feels!

15th April 2021 / Temp: 11 C / Water Level: Med

Full sun, blue skies, a slight chill in the air still lingering from the morning frost, a beautiful clear and sparkling spring morning and the perfect time to attempt the first Otter survey since February. Being laid low with an illness which didn’t shift for six weeks, left me horribly feeble and imprisoned in the house, so seeing the river looking shimmering and flashing in the sunlight as it tumbled helter skelter downstream, spraying over rocks and forcing its way through the river weed made my spirits soar and my view of life transformed!

Spring was confirmed by hearing the penetrating call of a Chiff Chaff’s repetitive song and the trilling song of a Wren as we walked along the river bank and clambered down to to our first site on a stony beach. Three lots of spraint on three separate stones, one fresh, two recent, interestingly showing no signs of crayfish in both the colour of the spraint or the contents. In fact we were so uncertain we poked the recent one with a stick and took a good sniff – and there it was, the distinctive smell of Otter, jasmine sweet with hints of lavender – someone should bottle it!

As we walked to the next site the path passed masses of sweet smelling blackthorn in full flower alive with swarming insects darting about high up in their branches. They looked like bees but they were so high and so fast it was impossible to tell. Lots of white dead nettle and comfrey nestled amongst the long grass under the trees and clumps of primroses close to the river and a single Swan making its way slowly upriver matching our slow pace.

There was no sign of Otter at the next fairly sizeable long beach which we wandered over, eyes checking every stone and log and grassy knots but without success. We weren’t surprised as we had never seen any signs on this beach before, but always checked just in case. But then, at the end of the beach where there was an area of coarse, gritty sand on the edge of the water, there were dozens of pad marks leading in and out of the water and on a fairly large stone nearby four spraints, all recent and nearby another recent spraint decorating another stone, and farther on yet another! It certainly looked like Otter heaven, so very quiet, no sound disturbing the peace but the rippling sound of the river, an area undisturbed apart from the occasional fisherman, with a mixture of fast and slack water, sparkling in the sun.

As we walked to the last site, I caught sight of an alder leaf beetle which had landed on my husband’s coat. I can’t remember a year when we have seen so many. Alders vie with willows as the most numerous trees along the river so we shouldn’t be so surprised, but this year they seem to have appeared so much earlier than ever before.

Lots of white dead nettle, comfrey, ground ivy and field speedwell as well as a bed of greater periwinkle, their flowers only just opening so showing a glorious deep purple instead of the usual blander blue.

We were quite astonished when we reached the final beach which we checked out of duty rather than expectation so imagine our surprise when we there were three separate large spraints left on three prominent stones widely spaced across the beach. This stretch of river has turned out to be Otter heaven indeed!

4th April 2021 / Temp: 13 C / Water Level: Med

We thought we might treat you to a rather more visible photograph of a Grey Wagtail, taken by our daughter, which is a considerable improvement of the fuzzy image of a couple of days ago! The absense of a black bib under its bill persuades us that it is a female. We believe the other Grey Wagtail close by was a male, but not in its full summer plumage so difficult to be absolutely certain, however, both looked as if they were busy nest building. Whether the male is the same one we saw a couple of days ago, we can’t know, but he was alone so it’s good to see a pair. Both of them were feasting on the masses of midges clouding just above the water; although the wind meant the day had an edge of chill, the sun was hot and strong low down, protected from the wind by the river bank.

Managed a short walk only along the river bank and an even shorter check along the carrier stream but it was left to my daughter to do the Otter survey of both stream and river. No recent signs but we were not surprised given local news of the Otters moving upriver. The river looked wonderful, glinting in the sunlight, as it rushed and crashed over the stones of the old Roman ford and we disturbed 7 Mandarin Duck altogether, as they rose in 2s and 3s from roosting places in the trees or from the river. A Mallard couple dabbling and exploring the water weed and a single Mute Swan, who took exception to our coming too close and took off with the maximum amount of noise and fuss but when its wings were fully extended and it was flying it looked and sounded magnificent. We had been amused earlier when watching it travel downstream to see it choose the fastest part of the current to sail past at top speed for all the world like a surfer riding the waves!

We caught the tail end of a Kingfisher flashing past, watched a Tree Creeper examining a couple of willow trunks, listened to a Green Woodpecker yaffling from the trees on the edge of the water meadow, spotted Jackdaws, Crows and Rooks, several small Wrens (one very crossly and agitatedly rushing up and down what was probably a nest site) a Buzzard slowly wheeling overhead, heard a Yellowhammer’s distinctive call, and watched Blue Tits, Great Tits and a brightly coloured Chaffinch high in the tree tops along the river bank.

While we rested under the willows, a small insect felll out of the tree and landed on my husband. The photograph is not very good (one of mine!) but clear enough to tentatively identify it as one of the myriad species of leafhoppers, most likely to be a Idiocerus herrichi which are ubiquitous around willow trees.

We were extremely surprised to spot our first crane fly of the year, which after a good deal of searching in books and online decided it could only be a Tipula lateralis, which is found around water from March to October. It has been seeing such a huge number of crane flies in this particular field which alerted us to crane flies appearing for a good deal of the year when we had only noticed them before in the autumn.

Lots of red deadnettle, and white, all over the meadow, scatterings of dandelions making bright splashes of deep yellow, lesser celandine and the very first umbelifer, a poor stunted cow parsley, but showing white so it shouldn’t be long before they appear in numbers.

A few other brave insects have begun to appear as well as the cranefly and leafhopper, and of course those uncountable numbers of dung flies who shoot up at almost every step. We spotted a 7 spot ladybird, a dark edged beefly, a buff-tailed bumblebee, and so lovely to see, a Red Admiral and a Small Tortoiseshell butterfly – it really must be spring!

30th March 2021 – Temp : 20 C / Water Level: Med

After nearly four long, long weeks we plotted a daring escape from my sick-bed, wobbly legged down the stairs, thick socked, booted and fleeced, sun-hatted and clutching my trusty Papillions we made it to the garage and into the car and away, off into the bright sunshine of a perfect spring day and headed 5 minutes down the road, parked the car, and then with thumb stick assistance slid down the river bank, perched on a conveniently placed tussock of grass, and looked and looked.

We basked in the hot sun and watched the cool fast water racing downstream, tumbling over stones and being forced into a log and finding a spout to spurt out of like a miniature fountain. We watched two male Mallards squabbling over a single female and saw one withdraw defeated while the pair happily nibbled their river weed. We saw a Grey Wagtail dash up, land on a stone, look around, flick his tail up and down and dash away.

We had a lovely chat with the kind farmer over whose land we walk to carry out our monthly survey who had spotted us when he was driving his tractor between fields and came over to say hello. He’s a keen ornithologist and we always swop our latest news and sightings; he had also spotted the Green Sandpiper when going about the farm and told us about a female Mandarin who was nesting in a tree quite close to the farmhouse and on a first outing had mistakenly led her 8 chicks into the slurry mistaking it for a pond. She immediately escaped but abandoned her chicks to their fate and the farmer and his son had the unenviable task of scooping them out and putting them into a cardboard box. They retired to some distance away and waited, and sure enough the female came back, fussed and squawked and led all 8 off to the river appearing to be none the worse from their mini adventure.

We decided to wander a little way upstream and although feeling stupidly feeble, I managed a slow hobble and was rewarded by this beautiful Comma which obligingly settled on a log, displaying his patterned wings and then slowly closing until the wings closed, presenting the perfect camouflaged underwings, so well disguised on the log that we would never have noticed it walking past.

We could hear a Blackbird singing its heart out, soon joined by a male Chaffinch, a Great Tit and a Song Thrush. We spotted a tiny Wren flitting amongst the plants at the rivers edge, saw a Brimstone, that most beautiful of Spring butterflies, fluttering downriver, followed soon after by the short peep peep warning cry and then the vivid flash of brilliant, vivid blue as a Kingfisher shot downriver.

We waited, watching while a cabbage white butterfly explored the opposite bank, too far away to judge the size, a couple of Crows hunted through the trees and we heard first a Magpie and a solitary Jackdaw. We waited, noticing the brilliant yellow lesser celandine star like flowers scattered along the river bank and the wild garlic, still in bud and the lovely red flowers on the larch and still we waited, and then – at last, the peep peep, the flash of blue and the Kingfisher flashed upriver again!! Halcyon Days indeed.

17th March 2021

Exciting win for the Floodplain Meadows Partnership and it was good to see that of their defining plant list for floodplain meadows, we have identified 80% of the plants growing along our survey stretch of the Somerset Frome. Sadly no signs of Snakeshead Fritillaries but there are very few truly wild specimens left and most have been planted.

https://www.theguardian.com/lets-live-clean/2021/mar/17/how-do-floodplain-meadows-affect-the-planet-nine-questions-for-the-winner-of-the-fertilise-the-future-contest

Signal Crayfish pearls (gastroliths)

We were reading an interesting piece in a Fishing Forum which was discussing American Signal crayfish pearls (gastroliths) which are often found in the stomachs of the trout they catch.  The photograph above is a selection of the ones we have found, usually  around Otter spraint.  We knew of course that crayfish are a staple part of our local Otters’ diet but we  had no idea that trout ate crayfish in such numbers as well.  Not being a fisherman, when I think of trout I inevitably think of food and do wonder what crayfish fed trout tastes like – delicious I imagine, rather like salt marsh fed lamb.

Anyway to get to the point, one of the Fisherman asked the group if they knew what he had found in the Trout’s stomach could be.  He said:  “They were in the stomach of a good sized still water caught Rainbow trout which was also pretty stuffed with crayfish. The water I fish has a large number of American signal crayfish which appear to form a staple part of the trout’s diet as almost every fish I catch has evidence of crayfish inside.

I have noticed these before but only singly and have always just thought them small pebbles ingested when the fish were feeding on the bottom, never found five before and the uniform shape is what made me realise that these couldn’t just be stones.  They feel cold to touch like stone, feel heavier than bone and are identical in shape, just vary in size.”

Another Fisherman in the Group explained that  “all crayfish have a hard outer shell (exoskeleton) composed of calcium carbonate but no internal skeleton. Their body is formed of three parts; head, thorax and tail. The carapace protects both head and thorax. As the crayfish grows it must moult/shed its shell and grow a larger one. However, to do this it has to have a store of calcium to draw upon. It achieves this by growing a pair of gastroliths in its stomach prior to moulting.

 The gastroliths are composed of calcium carbonate and are used to build the new shell. The process is repeated throughout the life of the crayfish. Any discarded shell may be eaten by the crayfish (or another crayfish) as an additional source of calcium. Just after moulting the crayfish is extremely vulnerable to predators as it no longer has its ‘armour plating’ to protect it from a predator.

3rd March 2021

Well, here’s a spot of good news.  Yesterday we posted our photograph of the unnamed and unidentified mussel/clam on the iNaturalist observations page in the hope that someone would notice it and help us with identification.  Help arrived prompty this morning from Canadian Ian Gardiner who confirmed that the shell was a European Fingernail clam  (Sphaerium corneum) sometimes known as a Horny Orb mussel. A great relief because they all looked exactly the same to us so we were pleased to hear from an expert. 

The clam is evidently “mainly a filter feeder and prefers healthy waters with good nutrition that provide a greater food source. These clams have exhibited a unique ability to climb up plants and structures around their habitat to find more optimal locations for feeding”.  So mystery solved. 

What a boon the internet is and how easy has it made identification and widened and increased our knowledge of the wildlife around us, however tiny and insignificant it might appear.  We have a lot to be thankful for.

26th February 2021 / Temp: 7 C / Water Level High

Another glorious morning, sunny and bright, clear fresh sparkling air with a lingering chill from the remains of the heavy overnight frost.  Perfect weather for checking Otter spraint.

We knew it was going to be a red letter day when we spotted a Kestrel perched motionless and watchful on a power line and who seemed pretty unfazed by our walking through the water meadows down to the river, we set up 6 Mallard as we approached the water and caught sight of a Chiff Chaff – a harbinger of spring.  No sign of Otter though.

The two Swans preening themselves on the wide beach got reluctantly to their feet and stepped disdainfully to the water and swam off without a backward glance.  Good that they moved as we then spotted a line of six clear Otter tracks across the soft gravel sand. 

Although we didn’t see them until they took off, we must have alerted a small flock of 20 Mandarin Duck to our presence because they flew up from their hidden place a little way up river and, unlike the Mallard which are always so noisily complaining if they are moved, the duck were silent apart from the sound of their wings flying off across the fields.

There were three Herring Gulls sitting in the middle of the field, one last year’s juvenile, Jackdaws shouting above us, a Raven croaked, a Buzzard mewed as it circled above the woods and a Spotted Woodpecker drummed loudly, echoing in the fresh, almost springlike air.  Blackbirds, Crows, Wrens, Robins, Great Tits and Long Tailed Tits yet another sign that the year is turning.  There were clouds of midges everywhere both above the fields and above the river.  We spotted Wolf spiders scattering at almost every steps, a couple of yellow dung flies, birds eye speedwell, the first of the year, red dead-nettle, snowdrops and even a clump of wild daffodils.

Climbing down the the beach of fine sand at our final site we were sad that there were no spraint, pad marks or any other signs of Otter.  Whilst there we checked for pea/fingernail mussels as this is another very small stretch where the river drops its load.  We collected a few, not many, but amongst them three or four new ones which we didn’t recognise.

We checked them with our eye glass and spotted what looked like the shell of a river limpet!  We were stunned, but the backward facing horn like apex surely couldn’t be mistaken for anything else.  We always thought the shape was so like the phrygian cap or liberty cap worn by the sans cullottes in the French Revolution, and this had the unmistakeable shape!When something you have desired for so long is suddently presented to you, when you are not looking for it but concentrating on something else entirely, the surprise is so strong for quite some time we didn’t quite know how to react.  We couldn’t wait to get home, check all the usual sources, contrast and compare, and when we did, it was confirmed.  We had actually found four minute river limpet shells, three no larger than about 3.5 mm and the other larger one was still only about 5 mm so they are not that easy to spot.

What a day!  What a triumph!  What celebrations – Joy unbounded!!

25th February 2021 / Temp: 10.5 C / Water Level: High

Very sunny morning, blue skies without a cloud but a chill wind.  When we arrived at the river there were already 5 fishermen scattered along the bank.  They were a pretty affable crew and well disposed to sharing their Otter sightings and fishing catches.  One had caught a 5lb Chub and another a large 7lb Pike which he said was the reason all the other fish were making themselves scarce – nothing like a cruising Pike to clear the waterways!

No sign of Otter and very little action, although we were pleased to see 7 Mallard in the flooded stream well away from the fishermen.  They scurried off when we approached but made no attempt to fly off so they probably realised we were only passing through and they could return to their favoured spot. 

Last year’s cygnet was also hanging around, we see a grandfather and young boy feeding him so he now thinks that everyone is coming with food and follows us as we walk upstream.  A few Long Tailed Tits, Robins, and the usual Jackdaws, Crows and Wood Pigeons.  We spotted the feathered remains of a Pheasant by the hedge, probably fox as the carcus was missing and the wing feathers intact.

We were intrigued to see a half circle trail of earth showing what was probably a mole’s shallow tunnel, but what was surprising was that it led from the path in an arc to the river and only stopped at the very edge of the bank.  There were no pad marks on the soft mud directly underneath, so presumably the mole realised he had run out of ground and beat a hasty retreat. 

23rd February 2021 / Temp: 10 C / Water Level : High

Beautifully sunny morning with blue skies and sailing clouds and although the wind was extremely strong and chilly, it proved exhilirating and we walked out with good cheer.  The water meadow and riverside is pretty empty of life at this time of the year so spotting a single yellow dung fly was something of an event!  Heartening, however, to see the tentative beginnings of life returning – scattered clumps of flowering lesser celandine made cheerful splashes of colour, good to see the occasional snowdrops right on the bank of the river and red deadnettle opening its blooms, as did a solitary daisy and common chickweed. 

But what confirmed that winter was finally coming to the end was the sight of hazel catkins glowing in the sunlight while being tossed about in the wind, hearing the Wrens singing for the first time for ages and Robins shouting out their territory to all and sundry.  No signs of any water birds down the whole length of our survey stretch and sadly no sign of Otter either.  There have been so many sightings and film of Otters upriver in the centre of the nearby town we weren’t at all surprised but the lack of water birds is rather concerning.  We saw a few other birds, a few Tits and of course Crows, Gulls, Pheasants and Wood Pigeons, heard a Blackbird’s warning rattle, spotted a couple of Magpies flying over and then three Buzzards circling above the trees which raised the tone a little but overall, little action.We scoured the wide gravel beach looking for signs of Otter without success.  Although the river was high and very fast, almost in spate, we could see from the lay of the grass that the whole beach had very recently been flooded so the water was dropping.

We love exploring this beach which in summer is a mass of flowering plants feeding butterflies, beetles, bees and hoverflies so a riot of colour, but it has its delights whatever the season.  On this occasion shreds of white plastic had been caught in the dead reeds when the water level dropped leaving them fluttering and streaming in the wind like so many ragged prayer flags on a Tibetan hillside.

As the current flows fast around the bend in the river it creates an eddy on the inside of the bend forming an inlet where the water is slowed and where it deposits finer material.  At the farthest end of the beach there are two pockets of fine sand where the water is slowed down yet more downstream of a tree and that’s where it drops sediment like sand and shells.  The advantage of winter when the beach is exposed is checking for duck mussel shells (two small closed ones today – very few on past numbers) and for the tiny pea mussels which are only about 4-5 mm in size.We have had innumerable tries at identifying this tiny mussel (which could equally be a nut orb mussel or a horny orb mussel!) and thought we had hit the jackpot with fine-lined pea mussel but abandoned that idea when we found out how rare it is.  When we looked at the list Penny Green found in the River Adur on the Knepp Estate :

Horny Orb Mussel, Lake Orb Mussel, Caserta Pea Mussel, Porous-shelled Pea Mussel, Rosy Pea Mussel, Short Ended Pea Mussel, Henslow’s Pea Mussel and Shining Pea Mussel

and realised that there are still further 8 species to chose from, we threw up our hands in despair and settled for calling them just “pea mussel” or even”orb mussel” and left it at that!  Whatever, these tiny pea mussels are really pleasing to see.  Although most only live for about a year producing one brood, under certain conditions their growth is much slower and they can live for several years and have several broods during that time.  These smaller mussels are hermaphrodites, which deliver living larvae.  Conditions must be pretty good here as the edge of the water in the small area of coarse, very dark brown sand, there is a line of these empty mussel shells.  What always draws the eye are the white ones, presumably bleached by the action of the water against the sand, but when we look closer, the duller but less worn light brown newer shells are just as abundant.  As mussels filter and thus improve water quality for other species such as fish, eels, otters etc, even such tiny creatures as these are a very welcome sight as they fulfil an important function in the overall quality and cleanliness of the river.

The great old willow tree is a bit of a shadow of its former self since its main limbs were lopped by the fisher folk so our main lichen garden and is no more, no doubt to a local stoat who use it as his hunting ground, but there was a nice clump of lichen on a nearby tree – fanfare of trumpets lichen with what may be the leafy yellow Candelaria concolor but I’m not altogether certain.

We walked back along the edge of the field hoping for some protection from the strong wind in our faces, checking the stream which was clogged with new plants, bright vivid green of new growth, and admired the beautiful arrow shaped leaves of the lords & ladies plant, splattered with dark brown sploges. Fingers crossed that all these signs really do signal that this long, dark winter, full of tragedy, worry and endless shocks is finally coming to the end and we can all welcome spring with a lightening of the heart.

6th February 2021 / Water Level : High / Temp : 7.5 C

A fine afternoon, chilly and damp but sunny spells and clouds drifting across blue skies.  The river was high and fast and what was particularly noticeable was the height and flow of the water in the carrier stream – quite the highest we had ever seen.  There were the first signs of early spring everywhere, a scattering of celandines and lots of clumps of snowdrops in flower all along the river bank, the hazel catkins a good length and even the wild chives were already 9 inches or so high when our cultivated chives at home have only just appeared.

 As we walked along the carrier stream we suddenly saw a Green Sandpiper lifting from where the stream broadens out as still and quiet as a mill pond – a perfect environment for Sandpipers.   This is the spot where our daughter spotted the Green Sandpiper the last time we came here so it seems extremely likely that the bird might have been here all winter and will stay until it flies off in March back to Sweden or Finland where it will remain until July. 

When we reached the pond area we saw lots of holes in the mud we did wonder if it had been pecking with its long beak searching for food except of course they rarely do this, they more usually pick up insects from just below the surface of the water so they are more likely to have been worm holes.  While we stood examining the mud, a Song Thrush began singing loud and clear from the tree nearby – so beautifully, so heartbreakingly and heard for the first time this year. 

There seemed plenty of tits, both Long Tailed and Blue Tits, we disturbed a fat little Wren flying low along the stream, Gulls, Wood Pigeons and Crows as usual overhead and we could hear the loud cackle of lots of Jackdaws but they remained hidden.  We heard a Raven’s croak twice during the walk, but whether it was the same or one of a pair we couldn’t tell, but we love to hear a Raven’s greeting us when we walk.

To add to our pleasure we spotted 2 lots of recent Otter spraint which was surprising given there have been so many sightings of Otters in the Rodden Nature Reserve in the centre of Frome, we thought they had probably moved on.   There were two or three other droppings which looked as if they might have been owl, possibly a Tawny Owl by the nearby neat pile of bones.

What there was in abundance were mole hills everywhere!  Almost all follow the course of the river, quite close to the banks, or near the hedgerows on the edge of the fields.  There must a goodly supply of earth worms in these water meadows given the number of mole hills and also the groups of badger setts along the banks on the rising ground.

18 January 2021 / Temp: 7.5 C / Water Level: Med. – Rising

A very quick dash between showers to get in an exercise walk which was pretty bracing in the north easterly wind and the water meadows did not look very enticing with the low cloud and gloomy light.  Of the two trees caught on the weir, the trunk of one looked to be petty substantial but heavy rains are forecast for the next few days so perhaps the river will rise enough to lift them off and send them downstream.  The Angling Club removed lots of trees and branches from the river back in September but unfortunately well before the Friends of the Somerset River Frome drew attention in their latest newsletter to the advantages branches and logs offer fish and other wildlife as shelter, as well as slowing the current to help prevent flooding. (See Instream Habitat on our September Blog page).

Nothing of interest all the way around but a lesser celendine in flower between two buds and a single cygnet on its own, a stark contrast to the abundance of spraint and the spotting of a rare winter visitor of only two days ago.  The cygnet was one of last year’s young, still retaining its grey-pink beak but having lost quite a number of its brown feathers making its unusually mottled colouring and appearance quite striking.

There were two fisherman along the bank, neither of whom had caught anything.  We stopped briefly to chat about the state of the river and  Otter spotting.  Not surprisingly one of them had seen Otters fairly frequently, always in the very early morning just after dawn so if we are serious about spotting we must get out earlier.  Although we are early enough risers, getting up at around 5.30am, we are slow to get going what with coffee and breakfast and newspapers and crosswords and our reluctace is reinforced  as it is difficult not to imagine a scenario when we arrive at the riverside to pace up and down in the cold for our hour’s exercise, see nothing but feeling convinced the Otters might be a couple of miles up or down stream or even just around the bend out of sight and we have only just missed it.  Everything comes to he who waits… we will wait and trust to our luck!

16 January 2021 / Temp: 9 C / Water Level: High

Oh the joy!  First walk for six long, long weeks tied to the house with a broken toe – too late for the earlier sunshine but ecstatic to be outside whatever the weather enjoying some longed for fresh air and exercise.

The rewards were manifold and totally unexpected.  At well spaced intervals all along the carrier stream we found fresh, recent and old spraint, chock full of fish bones and scales as well as signal crayfish remains.  The water from the river directed down the carrier stream was higher than we have ever seen it and although fast, a good deal quieter than the main river.  This would no doubt make more attractive hunting grounds for roaming Otters, particularly if these are the mother and two cubs which have been reguarly spotted father upstream in the centre of the town, both in the river but also recorded investigating the inside of a derelict boathouse.

When we reached an area where the carrier stream widens and the cattle have created beaches on either side, our daughter Rebecca (who had joined us for our support-bubble walk) spotted a Green Sandpiper on one of the beaches.  Oh for the sharp eyes of youth!  It flew off before we arrived but we were all so excited.  This is only the second time a Green Sandpiper, a winter visitor, has been spotted on our survey stretch, the first time not by us but last year by the farmer who is a keen birdwatcher.  Rather more mundane sightings were merely the usual Jackdaws, Rooks, Crows and Robins, and, rather more interestingly a Kestrel being mobbed by a Gull.

Walking back along the river bank, more fresh spraint and also anal jelly, and then spraint filled with blue-green irridescent beetle shells and snail shells which may or may not have been Otter (Owl pellets or Fox scat were suggested) and scat along a branch of a river bank alder. We also saw the remains of a blackbird, its bright yellow beak fully agape possibly a sign of its death throes.

The river was in full spate, fast and furious, churning around the flooded trees, making the most extraordinarily noisy rushing, swirling splashings which struck us that a recording might aid sleep in these turbulant times! 

Our hour being up we very reluctantly left the water meadows and headed home.  It was a brilliant first outing and as one of our number received his Oxford-Astra Zeneca vaccination against Covid 19 the day before, we hope like the first signs of spring, this might be the first signs of the epidemic beginning to come under control, the tragic news of the relentless numbers of deaths will end and we can return to fully enjoying the woods and rivers once again.

January 2021

DSCN0665 (4).JPG

Happy New Year!!  And are we happy to write as it signals the end of plague year 2020!  Good riddance family traumas, marriage breakdowns, job losses, broken bones, arthritis flare up and hospitals and welcome 2021 – may this with its promise of Covid 19 vaccines and spring on the way be the new beginning we are all hoping for.

2020 wasn’t a complete disaster, we added an astonishing 59 new species to our records list including the wonderful Grasshopper Warbler (the first sighting for over 50 years!), dozens of saddle-case caddisfly larvae and our first sighting of Stoneloach and a Diving Beetle, the beautiful Black Stoneflower lichen and our favourite, the extraordinary Gasteruption jaculator (see photo of the year above) parasitic wasp!  We were pleased to add our Beautiful Demoiselle damselfly to Durham University’s wing measurement study and see our cauliflower slime mold photograph added to Ispot’s permanent collection.

But most of all was the delight and pleasure we experienced on our Otter hunts, trekking across the water meadows, clambering down the river banks, wading though the river with our dipping nets, we blessed our good fortune in being able to experience all the joys of a beautiful lowland river throughout the year.

16th December 2020

Breaking News :  Very exciting news that over the past ten days there have been 3 confirmed sightings of a mother and two cubs being spotted in the centre of Frome – upriver from our survey stretch.   Unfortunately two were at dusk and the morning sighting was bugged by heavy cloud so no photographs.  However, fortunately the two cubs exploring David Sugrue’s boathouse in early autumn were caught on his trail camera.

9th December 2020

Cardiff University Otter Project message: Last post mortems of 2020! Busy day in the lab; 17 new arrivals (12 from south Wales, and 5 from East Anglia), 7 post mortems completed, samples archived. From a tiny juvenile found on a river bank in Worcestershire, to a large adult male with royal otter spotting* from Wiltshire. We look forward to examining more otters in 2021.

*A Cardiff University photograph of a previous Royal Otter from Worcestershire.  These markings are extremely rare but very beautiful.

1st December 2020 / Temp: 6 – 9 C / Water Level: High

It was such a beautiful early winter morning as we set out to check for signs of Otter for our survey – full sun, blue skies and a light wind which was cold but as most of the time we were protected by the trees the air was not nearly as bitter as we expected.

No sign of Otter at the bridge or the tunnel but we had a good chat with a fellow who was magnet fishing.  It was the first time he had explored this particularly stretch of water and he was interested to see if there were any interesting finds.  He said that he enjoyed getting out in the fresh air through the winter lock-down and checking and clearing debris from the river was he felt a good use of his time.  His main catch was usually abandoned fishing gear and cans and even road signs which have been thrown into the water which he hauls up and disposes of.  He gets huge satisfaction in removing detritus which sullies the water quality and might trap fish but always with the hope that he might find something a little more interesting.

We understood what he meant about hoping for something interesting as we returned to checking along the river bank and the exposed beaches, but in fact eventually we were extremely lucky to spot Otter spraint not on one of the many large stones scattered near the water but among the leaves on the raised ground alongside.  We were quite surprised to see broken signal crayfish claws in the spraint as although they don’t hibernate, crayfish are usually much less active in winter so more difficult for the Otter to catch.

One of the many alders along the river bank was riddled with four or five pretty large woodpecker holes (probably the Great Spotted Woodpecker) while all the others are untouched.   Some of the trees were hung with  male catkins which always look particularly striking in winter, their branches laden with the soft purple coloured catkins, beautiful in the sunlight against the blue sky when there is so little colour about.

There were lots of specimen trees dotted amongst the alders, sallows and hawthorns along that particular stretch, Mahonia, Silver Variegated Holly, Weeping Willow and the winter flowering Daphne, it’s pale pink flowers scenting the air, all of which must have been planted 30/40 years ago by the size of the trees to create an ornamental woodland.  The tree which caught the eye was the Wild Service tree, vivid purple red leaves glowing in the sunshine.

While clambering with difficulty along the river edge below this little wood, searching the stones for spraint,  a squirrel scampered up to examine the ground inches from my boots, looking very fluffy and healthy, no doubt full of hazel nuts which had given it’s fur a glossy gleam. Suddenly it caught sight of me – gazed terrified for a moment, before leaping and dashing off at lightening speed.

The tits were very busy all along the riverbank trees, Great Tits, Blue Tits and family parties of Long Tailed Tits as well as Chaffinches and Robins flitting from tree to tree.  We heard a Magpie rattling, Jackdaws chattering, Crows cawing and a Blackbird’s warning cry.  A beautiful Little Egret, snowy white and majestic, lifted languidly from a tree and flew off across the water meadow, while a pair of Mallards puttered about on the river.  In the meadow on the other side of the river we spotted Herring Gulls making a great deal of noise as they explored the grass around the cattle.  Surprisingly these were the first time we had seen this species of gull on the river.

Several flowering crab apple trees which stood in a line in the clipped contoneaster hedge were absolutely laden, their fat orange-red fruit looking ripe and luscious.  Good news for the birds when winter really sets in, these smaller fruits often attract Redwings, Thrushes and Robins – and the laden trees offer more than enough for a feast for all!

12th November 2020 / Temp: 10.5 C / Water Level: High

Blue skies, full sun, chilly, breezy wind – the perfect day for a stroll by the river and the rhyne and the meadow in between where every tree seemed to be covered in moss and lichen, including these tiny Bark Bonnets appearing out of the moss on a tree trunk leaning precariously over the river.

On another tree we spotted a growth of Black Stone Flower lichen, a first for the river, and one of my favourite lichens, the only one I know which has the lovely black or brown sheen on the underside of its leaves.

We saw flies every where, clustering together sunning themselves on tree trunks, or in the case of this rather beautiful Noon fly, on fence posts.  He stayed still long enough for me to get a photograph, a little out of focus, but clear enough to see his gold face and tiny gold paws as well as his striking gold epaulettes.

Despite the beautiful morning, there seemed to be little other activity, few birds – a Blackbird rattling its alarm call as it flew out of the hedge when we arrived, two Ravens calling and flying overhead, flocks of Jackdaws, Rooks and Crows flying down from the colony up on the hill and strutting and circling the cows and a solitary Heron sqawking loud enough to draw our eyes and we spotted it, flying over, quite some distance away.

What was most notable, apart from the flies, were the cluster of wasps which appeared amongst the ivy.  We have rarely seen so many so late in the year, the longer we looked, the more appeared so possibly they are helping the queen set up a new nest.

But the most striking sight was of course the lichen, at its best at this time of the year – the Common Greenshield below nestling among the wood bristle moss glowing in the sunlight, each growth forming a delightful garden along the branches of alder, ash and hawthorns along the river bank and willows beside the carrier stream.

The river was flowing fast and high, turbulent over the stones of the old Roman ford and swirling and flooding all of the beaches where we often see Otter spraint, so maybe if there was a passing Otter, he didn’t stop and leave a calling card  – no sign of Otter anywhere.

4th November 2020 / Temp: 9.5 C / Water Level: High

Glorious sunshine and despite the low temperature and early morning frost, the sun was so warm it felt lovely to be pottering along the river.

We decided to survey the small brook which was the tail drain of the original meadow flooding system running along the edge of the fields.  We decided to work up from where the leat or brook drained into the river as we had read that damselflies and dragonflies often lay their eggs in the quieter, calmer waters of these waters.  We had intended to check it in the spring but didn’t manage it so it seemed a good idea to check it now before winter sets in.  The bed of the brook had quite a layer of mud on top of which was a good layer of fallen leaves so we tried a figure of eight pond dipping technique through the river weed, and the aquatic plants.  It proved to be difficult to do this without disturbing the muddy bed as the water here is not very deep but we did manage to scoop up a few treasures.

As might as have been expected, there were lots of snails!  Every net had at least three or four pond snails and rather more interestingly, an almost equal number of juvenile fish.

Unfortunately most of our photographs were out of focus – but we believe the pond snails above look like wandering pond snails, and the juvenile fish a common groby.  We were sad that the photo of the ramshorn snail was not clear enough to ID.  There was a common minnow (we see lots of these in the main river). 

The above is the only clear photograph of a pond snail.  However, we did find freshwater hoghouse, a swimming mayfly nymph and what we think might have been a caseless cadisfly larva.  The one somewhat intriguing find was a black spider that may or may not have been a water spider.  We have never seen one before, the photograph was out of focus so we are really unable to confirm or deny.  

Not altogether a satisfying morning’s work but the weather was glorious, it was lovely to be out in the sunshine (despite the noise of the constant guns of a pheasant shoot in a field on the edge of the woods a couple of fields away) and it was interesting to see there was lots of life despite the cold weather and frosts beginning to set in.

28th October 2020

A wide ranging report in The Frome Times about the current state of the Somerset River Frome including an interview with Sue Everett of Friends of the River Frome and details of a town council meeting where this matter was raised and discussed.  A letter will be sent to the local MP asking for intervention with  Wessex Water to reduce the amount of raw sewage flowing into the river.  The Council and Friends of the River Frome are also liaising with local farmers to tackle the problem of run-off of pollutants into the river.   To read the full story, follow the link below.

http://www.frometimes.co.uk/2020/10/28/heal-our-river-river-frome-in-poor-condition-due-to-pollution-and-sewage-overflow/

16th October 2020

An interesting article in The Guardian (below) on the Environment Agency’s latest data on river quality in rivers in England also has links to its detailed analysis.

The stretch of the Somerset River Frome which we survey was deemed Moderate for both Overall Water Body and Ecological but Fail for Chemical pollution. 

A couple of areas leap out – every year from 2013 until 2018 the Chemical content was deemed Good but in 2019 it was deemed Fail.  As there was a stricter test for this latter period, it is difficult to know whether the pollution is worse or whether it is simply down to the new test – common sense would lead one to suppose the latter.

The Somerset River Frome receives discharges from sewage works at Rode, Beckington and Frome, trade effluents e.g. cooling waters, boiler blowdown water and dairy effluent.  For our stretch the pollution caused by continuous sewage discharge by the Water Industry and pollution from agricultural and land management (PBDE and Mercury and its compounds) were already in the river when it reached the beginning of our survey stretch, i.e. the confluence of the Mells River with the Somerset River Frome.   The Environment Agency data doesn’t give details of whether the pollution becomes heavier downstream from that point so it is difficult to draw any conclusions about the health of this particular stretch of river. 

Nevertheless, it is very likely that cattle from the dairy farm and the creamery factory outfall add pollution to the river.  50 years ago the entire River Frome was category 5, the highest pollution category, so there have been improvements, enough for Dippers, Kingfishers, Brown Trout, Stoneloach and invertebrates like saddle-case caddis fly, damselfly, mayfly and dragonfly larvae to survive. 

However, despite PBDEs being banned in Europe since 2004, these pollutants are still found in virtually all European river fish, including those of the UK.  We do not know the long term consequences of these pollutants, not only on the entire flora and fauna of the river but also on the Herons, Little Egrets, Otters and others at the top of the food chain but  Bernd Heinrich in his book A Year in the Maine Woods as long ago as 1994 drew attention to these consequences when he observed: “Eagles along Maine inland lakes, rivers, and marine habitats reveal some of the highest levels of mercury and PCB contamination ever recorded, and they are among the slowest to reproduce of any birds in the whole of North America”.  He also notes that the Bald Eagles near his log cabin although they built nests were unable to produce young which he believed was a direct result of these pollutants.

We contacted the Freshwater department of Earthwatch and asked for their thoughts on the Environment Agencies failing our water quality and our finding so many species which are normally only associated with clean water.

Kes Scott-Somme, Research Assistant in the Freshwater department replied:

“I would imagine that the Environment Agency ran more tests than just for nitrates and phosphates, so it may be an issue of something like heavy metals or other chemicals. Saying that, you can have high nitrate levels and still have a lot of animals present, nitrate pollution tends to lead to excessive growth of problematic algae, but if you have a resilient and healthy system, it can cope with quite a bit of nutrient input. Similarly, phosphate pollution is usually quite localised, so you might have an area where they are impacting the environment, but further downstream could be ok.

The Environment Agency operate using the Water Framework Directive ‘one out, all out’. So if you fail for chemical pollution, your river fails to get good status, even if you have lots of wildlife present. This is actually a good principle, because if you have issues of chemical pollution, your system may be able to cope with it to an extent, but if it continues, over time the quality of the habitat will deteriorate. It’s the science version of being ‘on the safe side’ and to make sure there isn’t any ‘optimistic sampling’.”

We found this extremely helpful and we hope to take up her suggestion of testing the water on a regular basis to check any signs of deterioration from the present levels.

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/sep/17/rivers-in-england-fail-pollution-tests-due-to-sewage-and-chemicals

FROM THIS…..

TO THIS!

“Sound the All Clear!!”

15th October 2020 / Temp : 10.5 C / Water Level: Falling

Another day another Otter hunt – the last stretch of our survey sites and one which we hope to complete quickly as the strong north-easterly was at our back, chilling us to the bone.

No signs of Otter at any of the four sites which was a great disappointment, but Mallard gallore!  We counted 27 altogether as well as 17 Mandarin Ducks, 2 Heron and 1 Little Egret so good news on the water bird front; we also heard a Green Woodpecker and a Raven and watched two Buzzards slowly circling above us as we walked. We reached a stretch of river bank protected from the wind so the sun felt warmer and despite the lack of Otter signs it felt good to be able to enjoy such a beautiful stretch of countryside.

Lots of mushrooms like shaggy inkcaps growing in the grass, bracket and honey fungus appearing on the trees and lichen covering the tree trunks, branches and on the fallen logs (like common powder horn above), cows in the fields, large flocks of Rooks and Jackdaws scavenging together in the fields and clouds of gulls circling above the hillside, turning leaves, golden yellow and pink-purple, scarlet berries and black-purple sloes – a classic autumn scene.

14th October 2020 / Temp: 13.5 C / Water Level: Falling

A beautiful autumn morning, the air clear and fresh and good tree cover provided protection from the stiff wind and we were excited when we came across the site of a Roman ford which the owners of the land had told us about.  Extraordinary to think that just from the sloping banks on either side, the stony bed and the shallowness of the water the site is perfectly discernible.  As if to salute the area, an Otter had left his calling card on a large (possibly Roman!) stone!   Interestingly it’s the first spraint we have seen in years without any signal crayfish remains and instead of our usual red coloured spraint, this one was a classic black tarry specimen.  Whether this shows that the crayfish are already retreating to their burrows for the winter or some other reason, we will be interested to see as the season progresses.

We were surprised to see this beautiful opium poppy in flower so late in the season and to notice quite a few hawksbit and scarlet pimpernel also in flower.  The hedgerows had a good crop of sloes and hawthorn berries and the grass under the trees scattered with fungus so it was definitely autumn.

Finally, a totally unknown lichen growing on the bridge.  Something to spend the long dark winter nights trying to identify – like chasing rainbows, totally pointless but enjoyable.   However, there is of course an outside possibility that it is Varrucaria mamoria a crustose endolithic lichen which grows on limestone rocks and as the bridge is built of limestone, is it a strong likelihood?  Hmmm.

13th October 2020 / Temp: 8.5 C / Water Level: Falling

Beautiful morning, occasionally hazy, mostly full sun so despite the chill wind it felt wonderful to walk feeling the warmth on our backs and seeing the sun turning the autumn leaves to cascades of gold. 

As we set out we were thrilled to see a Common Crane flying overhead – a sign of long life – so we continued walking with a definite spring in our step!  When we heard of a Common Crane in Coleford in August and sightings over Colliers Way we never expected to see one here but all very exciting! We heard a Raven and a Buzzard, saw Magpies, Robins, Blackbirds, Rooks and Jackdaws and first a Swan and Cygnet gliding downriver past us, then two adult Swans and on the way back a Little Egret, also flying over.

Sadly, still no sign of Otter at any of the three sites we surveyed and despite walking the entire river and back along the stream in the hope of some signs of life, but to no avail.   We still have two more stretches to complete the survey and hope to see spraint or pad marks at one of them at least, otherwise it begins to seem like a repeat of the past couple of years when Otter signs disappeared with the end of the optimal period for Signal Crayfish in October.

Everywhere was very quiet with virtually no signs of life; a number of common wasps, noon flies and cluster flies on almost every fence post, but the pink leaved guelder rose branches were heavy with bright shiny scarlet berries, the spindle trees were displaying their striking Schiaperelli pink, there were crowded clusters of fungi in the grass and the sun was shining – autumn is not without its compensations.

11th October 2020 / Temp: 13.5 C / Water Level: Med

No signs of Otter at either of the two sites but what was striking at the first was the field yet again flooded when the pasture had barely time to recover from last autumn and winter’s almost permanent flooding.  This year there were 18 Mallard  swimming around in the newly created lake (last year it was gulls).  When three more Mallard flew over and looked to land, it seemed the whole group set up the most almighty racket, quacking away, possibly telling them to clear off there wasn’t enough room, despite the large area of water available!  We did wonder why they preferred the flooded meadow to the river – possibly warmer as it was in full sun all day?

There were 9 more Mallard swimming around above the weir (which was in ferocious spate) and it was good to see the goodly number of ducks as there was no sign of any other water birds, in fact few birds at all – a few Crows, a small party of Tits and of course the Pheasants.

Few insects about, although several splendidly coloured Noon flies displaying their golden epaulettes, a Red Darter sunning instelf on the

fishing jetty and quite a few, a dozen or so Ivy bees and common wasps around the ivy flowers many of which are beginning to form berries so they didn’t get much of a feast.

There are so few plants still in flower, apart from the water forget-me-not, some rather bedraggled looking marsh marigolds and tansy, there seemed precious little for the insects to feed on.

It was such a beautiful afternoon, brilliantly clear air, bright sunshine, blue skies and puffy white clouds and although the north-easterly wind was brisk, the warm sun ensured we felt warm.

We moved on from the water meadow to the bridge where the banks are very wooded.  In a sunny glade beside the river there were clouds of winter gnats doing their mating dance, and bright black beetles clustering in the crevices of the sequoia tree bark. However although there were no signs of Otter, we did see Mink pad marks in the mud around the tunnel where the rhine stream joins the main river.  We haven’t seen any signs of Mink for so long we had rather hoped they had moved on, but possibly because there is less Otter traffic or some other reason, it seems they are back.A couple of months ago when we were chatting to some of the working party clearing the river, they drew our attention to fish head surrounded by scales which they believed was Otter kill.  We were not quite so sure as Otter eat fish head first and are more likely to leave the body of the fish rather than the head and the scat was definitely not Otter (or Mink) and we thought at the time is was Stoat.  Although we knew that fish is a part of Stoat’s diet, we didn’t (and still don’t) know if they eat the head, in fact we know very little about Stoats – merely that they run up and down or lie along willow branches!However, all thought of Otters, Stoats, Mink or anything else was washed from our minds when we returned to the river just in time to see a Kingfisher flash downstream and then within minutes a pair of Kingfishers flashed back upstream, the strong sunlight highlighting their startling flash of vivid cyan and blue.  How wonderful when we were angsting that there were so few water birds, to be rewarded with a pair of Kingfishers.  How lucky we feel when life sometimes offers us such totally unexpected and delightful treats.

8th October 2020 / Temp: 14 C / Water level : Rising

No signs of Otter on our very rapid survey or two sites.  Access to the third site was blocked by the Fishing Club so we will have to discuss  this development with our survey co-ordinator and perhaps remove it from the list of sites which we survey.Fallen trees, branches and accompanying debris had partially obstructed one side of the pier and a large extent of one arch of the bridge.  The river has been very low for most of the summer and the recent continuous heavy rain has cleared the river of fallen trees from farther upstream.  If the Fishing Club had not cleared the river farther downstream, this extra load would have caused serious problems, possibly flodding.Very little else to see except a Little Egret perched alone in a large tree at the end of the field – sad to think that last year we had seen 7 Little Egret in the same tree.

17th September 2020

No sign of Otter at any of the four sites, no water birds along the whole stretch, but 3 Emperor and 1 Red Darter dragonflies, 4 Large White butterflies, innumerable wasps and crane flies while Magpie, Wren and Grey Wagtail were the only birds apart, of course, from the dratted Wood Pigeons and as usual at this time of year escaping Pheasants everywhere fleeing from the nearby shoot!A major three-day work party of volunteers from the Frome and District Angling Association, Canoe Club and other supporters cleared of a number of large trees and debris from the river and overgrown vegetation from the bankside.   There now appear to be 25 pegs on a stretch of the river we survey, each peg with a wide clearance on either side, where trees have been severely cut back or removed and the bankside completely bare. 

Expert assessment, advice and guidance was given and followed but to the untrained eye it does appear that the river will be more susceptible to pollutant (particularly phosphates) run-off from the fields which the previous plantlife and tree roots helped to absorb.  The recent Defra report on the health of UK rivers drew attention to phosphates and other chemicals which, combined with untreated sewage (continuous on this stretch), is a particular problem in the overall health of the River Frome.  However, we are certain that this has been taken into account and no doubt some of these plants will be encouraged to grow next spring to offer home to the midges and mosquitos the many species of dragonflies and damselflies currently inhabiting the river feed on as well as hiding places for the sedge flies during the daytime and resting places for the newly emerged mayflies as their wings form and harden.

Of all the remedial work, we mourn the loss of a large branch of the ancient willow tree which stood proud in a central place of honour next to the bank on the shingle beach, the largest and longest of the several limbs which have been removed.

This old tree was a haven, a veritable garden, of so many species of moss and lichen and for some reason beloved of stoats whose hairs we often found unaccountably caught up in the bark.  Why they would run along, or lie on the branch is a mystery we have long since ceased to try and fathom!

In the long dark days of autumn and winter when so little of the countryside seems to be living, it is always a delight to examine the vivid colours and varied shapes of these organisms – a miniature oasis, a tiny Eden, gone forever.  Fortunately these photographs, taken on the 7th September, record the last flowering.

NOTE:  Problems to guard against in maintaining good river habitat include

Intensive fisheries management
Regular ‘weed’ cuts in the channel; fencing off and mowing of strips along the bank; infilling and stabilisation of banks; removal of unwanted fish species (e.g. pike, grayling); and high stocking with farm-reared trout.

Retain aquatic, marginal and riverbank vegetation
Traditional river restoration techniques may be particularly damaging for invertebrate species that rely on the presence of marginal and riparian vegetation to provide shelter and emergence sites. Weed cutting has been suggested as the cause of the serious decline of the River Test’s best known caddis fly the Grannom (Brachycentrus subnubilus), nationally a common species. If fishing areas or ‘swims’ are to be cut in the natural vegetation their location should be rotated on an annual basis to allow re-growth of the vegetation.

Work liable to damage marginal and riverbank vegetation should aim to leave a mixture of species and sward heights. Such work should be undertaken on one bank only and on short stretches such as 50 metres in each 200 metres in any one year, with cut material gathered and stored in heaps in non-sensitive areas. When mowing paths on the river bank for access by anglers, leave an uncut fringe of tall herbaceous vegetation as a screen between the path and the river to provide shelter for adult invertebrates.

Riverside trees are an important component of the chalk river habitat, providing shelter for a number of rare and nationally scarce species including the fly Cosmetopus dentimanus and Scarce chaser dragonfly (Libellula fulva). The White clawed crayfish also favours sites with overhanging bankside vegetation. However, if the river or stream becomes completely shaded by overhanging trees, this can have an adverse effect on aquatic invertebrates, so it is important to maintain a balance.

16th September 2020

A paper has been published and put online by the Otter Project team at Cardiff University entitled:

Biological and anthropogenic predictors of metal concentration in the Eurasian Otter, a sentinel of freshwater ecosystems.

The conclusion* arrived at was that none of the pollutants listed in the graph below were sufficiently concentrated to adversely affect the Otters.

NB :  *This conclusion would also correspond with the fact that there are other animals we have observed which are associated with clean rivers (such as Dippers, Kingfishers, cased caddifly  and mayfly larvae, dragonfly & damselfly nymphs etc) which are also able to tolerate the degree of polution shown.

Result: Cd, Pb, As & Hg are below toxic thresholds in UK otters. Cr & Ni are declining. Geological & hydrological processes are important in driving variation in contamination. No evidence for any association with putative anthropogenic sources (eg wastewater discharge points).

Image

Explanatory note on the graph :

The amount of concentration of each metal in the Otters varies.  The vertical scale gives the amount of concentration.  Each metal is given its own vertical spread.  The thick horizontal line in each case shows the half way mark (the median) of concentration for each metal.  The “box” surrounding it shows the range of the central half of the amount of concentration.  The “whiskers” leading up and down show the extent of the central three quarters of the concentration.  There are individual Otters where the amount of concentration lies outside this range.  They are shown by individual black dots.

To read the article in full, please click on the link below.

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0269749120359686?via%3Dihub&fbclid=IwAR0OPq0S6GfvcKTKddEOL3I79ofES0eU8oNtRFS1rtJRstp8any218UjPzA

10th September 2020 / Temp: 13.5 – 18.5 C / Water Level: Med-Low

Scorpion fly – Panorpa communis

We surveyed our last stretch of four sites on a beautiful September morning, blue skies and temperature rising as the sun reached its zenith, a wonderful day for a hunt.

No signs of Otter at our first site but we disturbed 8 Mallard and the air was full of Crows and Jackdaws.  We also saw a dead pheasant tucked into the long grass low down on the river bank – it was sitting and by all appearances undamaged which lead us to wonder how it had died.  The night was unseasonably cold but that seemed unlikely – a small mystery.

Common Buzzard – copyright Rebecca Muirhead

On to the next site where first a flock of 13 Mandarin rose almost silently from the river, followed by another 4 and then another 14 – 31 altogether about 10 more than the largest numbers last year.   A Grey Heron soon joined them but no signs of Little Egrets which was disappointing as we had seen 7 roosting in one of the trees last autumn, although it was good to hear the plaintive mew of a circling Buzzard as we walked.  We also drew a blank on Otters at the third site but what was noticeable, this area still being out of the sun, was the uncountable number of hammock spider’s webs in the grass, very striking, they seemed they seemed to be everywhere.

A great relief to find Otter spraint on our very last site – 1 fresh and 1 recent and lots of old dried sprint covering the stones of the beach exposed by the low water.  We saw and heard a Kingfisher – confirming it was a halcyon day and when we heard a Raven calling a greeting we knew all was perfect in the “best of all possible worlds”!

Dock Bug – Coreus marginatus

Common Green Shield bug – Palomena prasina

The two spiders which we spotted are difficult to identify, our best guess (and it is despite much research) still a guess is that they are grass spiders, Tibellus oblogus, which are often found in sand dunes near the coast but also in damp places like grassland.

Grass Spider on hedge

By now the temperature was steadily rising and the  sun was really hot, so we were not surprised to see Large White, Orange Tip (female)  and Green Veined White butterflies fluttering both across the meadows and all along the hedgerows. 

Honey Bee with pollen sacks

Walking back across the dandelion scattered field, we noticed almost every flower head held a honey bee or hover-fly burrowing away.  Evidently dandelions produce lots of pollen so at this time of the year provide a very welcome feeding station for pollinators.  The farmer has a couple of hives so that honey bees always seem to predominate and most of them had their pollen baskets on their legs pretty full.

7th September 2020 / Temp: 13.5 – 16.5 C  / Water Level: Med- Low

An early start to catch some sun and we were hugeIy rewarded for our effort – if you peer very carefully at the above photograph you might be able to discern a bird, you might even be able to see that it is an murky image of the Dipper we were thrilled to see from the bridge – the first we have ever seen in this particular stretch of the river. It hopped around from stone to stone and dipped its head under the water, seemingly searching, but during the whole time we were watching, it never dived down to fish.

A Grey Wagtail was its constant companion – also hopping and flying between the stones. We can only believe what the clusters of caddis fly cases upstream of this spot seemed to indicate – at the moment the river is pretty clean. A really cheerful start to our otter hunt, made even more spirit-lifting by spotting fresh spraint on the bridge pier, opposite the cluster we spotted two days ago – really great news.

There were no signs of Otter at two of our other sites and we didn’t survey the third – the new young bull which has replaced Ernie looked rather too energetic for our liking.  However we were pleased to see a pair of Swans with 3 cygnets by the main beach, a Little Egret by the weir and heard a Green Woodpecker from across the water meadows.  Brown Hawker, Red Darter and Emperor dragonflies, Banded Demoiselle damselflies and Large White butterflies were out and about enjoying the warm sunshine, wasps and noonflies sunbathed on the telegraph poles, lots of alderleaf beetles on the brambles and clumsy crane flies everywhere in the grass, as difficult to avoid in autumn as the grasshoppers in spring.

No signs of Otter at the last three sites but more Large White butterflies, honey bees, hoverflies, grasshoppers, pond skaters and craneflies, the trifid bur-marigold in flower along with, rather surprisingly, several large clumps of marsh marigold, water forget-me-not and purple loosestrife

and our first sighting of a pleated inkcap fungus, a slightly unwelcome reminder that autumn is upon us when every part of us clings to summer as we persuade ourselves that the sun is warm, the river beautiful and nothing will ever change.

15th August 2020

DSCN0736 (4).JPG

Rain?  What rain?  We’re off to the river to fish for treasure – what’s a little rain!

We did at last manage a brief kick survey under the bridge, in the same place as last year and caught pretty much a similar haul, athough not so many species (mostly bullshead and signal crayfish) but whether that was due to the rain it was impossible to know.  What is so wonderful with children that whatever they find is exciting and  their enthusiam is undimmed whatever the weather and they never seem to feel the cold or discomfort.

While waiting for the rain to ease a little, we stood close to the bank and noticed 3 or 4 empty crayfish shells floating in the river.  The one which the children retrieved had a claw missing and knowing how crayfish fight, we wondered if several had been killed and their dead bodies cleaned out by predators but we have really no idea what caused it.

We checked for Otter spraint both on the bridge piers and on top of the boulders with no luck and so decided to walk to the next site which was at least sheltered a little by the overhanging trees and check the boulders for caddis cases.

Sharp-eyed youngsters soon found lots and the river echoed with their shouts of triumph as they discovered another and another – the sheer numbers of cases is a very positive indication of water quality. Most of the finds seemed to be Glossosomatidae (Saddle-case caddis) with one or two together on top of a boulder, some of which looked empty, whereas there were clusters of half a dozen or more underneath the boulders.  It took an eagle-eyed child to find what had eluded us all – a squared tubular case which is a new species, even if we were unable to identify it!

It was a pretty tired party which made its way slowly back across the water meadow but all quietly satisfied that we hadn’t let the rain prevent our expedion!

11th August 2020 / Temp: 28-30 C / Water Level : LowDSCN0691 (2).JPG

Even at 10.30ish in the morning it was extremely hot so it was good to walk the shady side of the river and even better to climb down to where the water is completely screened by overhanging trees and is full of riffles and eddies, tumbling over stones and where the air felt deliciously cool.

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We spent an enjoyable time poking about the river bed, turning over stones, looking for insects among the riparian vegetation while hoping to spot Kingfishers and Dippers (yes to the first, no to the second).  No sign of any insects or much movement in the river, but we did spot a couple of saddle-case caddis, completely out of the water and almost dry. Whilst examining the photograph at home we noticed what looked for all the world like a cooked shrimp on the stone below the saddle-cases.

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We have examined it carefully but as we hadn’t focused on the shrimp, the image is not very clear – however we believe it could either be a mayfly larva which was stranded (or died) on the stone when the water receded or perhaps (more excitingly) the invasive species The Killer Shrimp!! Dikerogammarus villosus grow to about 30 mm long and were first recorded in the UK in 2010.  It has spread to lakes, canals and rivers in most of the country, breeds prolifically and is thus a danger to native species.  We have read that these gammerid types of shrimp have a head and body which are laterally flattened, so dead specimens (like this one) lie on their sides.  It could have been swept downstream from the more sluggish stretches of river which it is said to prefer. Note:  Excitement over – we submitted the photo to non-native species alerts at the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology and Dr David Aldridge from the University of Cambridge replied with the news that this is not a killer shrimp – we don’t know whether to be pleased or disappointed – the former of course!

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Lots of newly opened saracens woundwort and tansy both making vivid splashes of golden yellow along the banks; on one stretch there was a great tangled mass of pink great willowherb, purple creeping thistle, purple loosestrife, himalayan balsam, red and white dead nettle, white angelica with its purple stems, blood red burdock, white trumpets of great bindweed and white flowered hemlock which made a wonderful harmonic splash of colour, shape and height – all the riverside plants of high summer.

Given the amount of possible nectar on display, there were very few butterflies – mostly small and large whites and speckled woods.  And apart from the Kingfisher flashing past, and hearing a Green Woodpecker, Magpie, Great Tit and Wren and seeing the usual Crows and Wood Pigeons, as expected at this time of the year, little signs of birdlife.

The most active insect apart from the bees was a Brown Hawker dragonfly, constantly flying, swooping and turning up and down the riverside plants in never ending flight, tirelessly searching for tiny midges to eat.

No signs of Otter under or around the bridge or along the river bank – off wandering no doubt.

2nd August 2020 / Water Level: LowDSCN0651 (4).JPG

The afternoon was mixed with sunny intervals and scudding clouds, quite blustery and windy – the kind of day where it was either too hot or too chilly so a short walk along the river bank checking for Otter spraint was a good way to occupy our time.  Clambering down to the  stony beach is always fun and today was well protectedDSCN0665 (4).JPG

from the wind.  No sign of caddis fly lavae cases or insects hiding in the foliage so after an enjoyable potter, we returned to working our way around the water meadow.

We were extremely pleased to discover this extraordinary looking creature, a female parasitoid wasp (Gasteruption jaculator), one of the two we spotted searching around a slowly decaying, hole ridden tree stump, presumably searching for  a solitary wasp’s nest filled with eggs to lay her own eggs to predate on them.  The length of the white-tipped ovipositer gives a clear sign of the depth she has to delve to seek out the nest.

DSCN0672 (2).JPGSince finding the cauliflower slime mould fungus on this stump, we always check it out to see what beetles, bees, wasps or fungus might be making its home there.  Today whilst trying to photograph the wasp, we could see black woolf spiders running around the foot of the trunk hunting for who knows what!

It was fun to find this species of wasp, which is new to us, and made up for not finding any signs of Otter on any of the banks after spotting fresh spraint on one of the piers under the bridge.  Few birds – a Raven, Wren, Green Woodpecker, Lesser Black-backed Gulls, Jackdaw, Crow and happily a Dipper but lots of grasshoppers, few butterflies – Peacock, Small Whites DSCN0659 (3)

(including one poor bedraggled butterfly rescued from it’s desperate attempts to free itself from a cobweb)a Small Tortoiseshell and a Small Blue. Lots of bees, including loads of buff-tailed and a couple of red-tailed bumble bees and lots of flies everywhere.

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Still a reasonable number of plants in flower, the tansy making a colourful display on the riverbank and it was good to see the first gypsywort of the season, along with purple loosestrife, purple teasels, creeping and spear thistles, himalayan balsam together with saracens woundwort just coming into flower, woody nightshade and thick clumps of water forget-me-not all along the rhyne, so thick and lush it was pretty much impossible to spot the water – such a wonderful celebration of summer!

29th July 2020 / Temp: 17 C / Water Level:  Med-LowDSCN0593 (4).JPG

The Common Field Grasshopper is the one most likely to be seen and our  most constant companion on walks through the water meadows and along the river banks from June until late autumn and their leaping and chirring provide one of the special delights of smmer grassland.   Such walks are not just thoroughly enjoyable they are also beneficial to good mental and physical health as is borne out by recent Blue Health reports which have found that the benefit of outdoor exercise is enhanced if taken near water.  Rivers, sea, lakes etc add an extra dimension and, having spent almost my entire life living close to one or other, I always feel the strong pull of water and the need to be close.  Whether beside the Thames, the Bristol Avon, the Sava, the Danube, the Java Sea, the Atlantic Ocean or the Somerset River Frome – each has its own very particular charm – no flying fish or dolphins but brown trout and otters – no lobster or seaweed but crayfish and watercress, Little Egrets instead of White Storks and flashing Kingfishers instead of diving Fulmars – all  totally different but all totally captivating.

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No luck at any of our four sites – no signs of Otter activity at all, not even pad marks in the mud, which was disappointing but not totally unexpected as Otters are constantly on the move over a long beat of river.  No sign of water birds either but a sprinkling of banded demoiselle damselflies, both male and female, eight in all, but only one common blue and one blue-tailed damselflies and a single common darter dragonfly.

It was a similar story with butterflies, we spotted one each of speckled wood, small tortoiseshell, comma, gatekeeper, 3 red admiral but around a dozen small whites.  As for birds we heard and saw Goldfinches, Blue Tits, Long-tailed Tits, Swallows, a Buzzard, Jackdaws, Rooks, Crows, Gulls and of course Wood Pigeons but no more than a handful.

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And yet… what we did see was our first wild carrot whilst walking across the meadow, complete with a single pink/red flower in the centre and a beautiful yellow and black ichneumon fly (our first of the year and a new species to boot!) perched on the edge, lots of upright hedge parsley, a footballer hoverfly settled on a thistle leaf, a willow redgall sawfly and a willow leaf beetle larva on one of the crack willows, not to mention a flesh fly by the river, which together make an impressive haul of seven new species to add to our list!  What a balm it is, to so lose oneself in examining this one single tiny insect, sitting on this particular leaf, on this very plant, feeling the warmth of summer on one’s back, while the worries and cares of the world recede and simply fall away.

And so even the frustration of  the camera battery giving out less than half way around the sites mattered not a jot!

13th July 2020 / Temp: 17.5 C / Water Level: Very Low

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The final stretch of river for our spasmodic Otter survey for this month.  The weather was dull and overcast but the rain held off thank goodness and we checked all the sites without incident.  We delighted in seeing the Swallows and House Martins swooping low over the fields and lining up along the telegraph wires – they always look as if they are having such a good time!  Good to see a couple of Herons, Mandarin Ducks, hear a Green Woodpecker and we were thrilled to catch our first sighting of a Mistle Thrush in the area.   Jackdaws, Rooks and Crows were noisily making their presence known as they spread out in an adjoining field and Wrens, Pied Wagtails in the trees while Gulls and the ubiquitous Wood Pigeons were constantly flying over, so lots of action.

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Nothing very much to see on the river, apart from hundreds of shore flies on the mud and stones at the water’s edge; no signs of Otter on the first three sites, but we were rewarded by 1 fresh, 2 recent and 2 old spraint filled with crayfish bones and surrounded by scattered crayfish pearls.

Apart from a noon fly on a cow pat, a good number of bees feeding on the flowers of the greater willowherb, meadowsweet and bramble lining the bank, a few Small White butterflies and a single Red Admiral there seemed little other sign of insect life.  So imagine our surprise when walking the path along the hedge on the way back to see first one or two and then dozens of Gatekeeper butterflies!

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We have never seen them along the river before and yet there they were in profusion – strange.  Interesting to see them totally ignoring the thick clumps of beautiful scentless mayweed and stately teasels both in full bloom to hunt among the leaves of the hedgerow.

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We were amused to see on every fence post a cluster of face flies, all sitting perfectly still, looking in the same direction, like sunbathers lined up on the beach.

11th July 2020 / Temp: 17.5 C / Water Level: Low

DSCN0340 (2).JPGA quiet stretch of the river with water lilies

A beautiful day, warm, full sunshine,  clear blue skies with a mixture of cirrus and fluffy meringue shaped clouds – a perfect summer’s afternoon for standing calf deep in a fast flowing river full of shoals of minnows while brilliant blue banded demoiselle damselflies and bossy brown hawker dragonflies flit around you.

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We had moved farther downstream from our last kick survey to check the stretch of water 100 yards or so below the weir.  The river does run fast here, swirling through the trailing tresses of the water weed and it was after sweeping the net under the edges of the weed that we were very excited to capture this beautiful Stoneloach in our net.

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As these fish are mainly active at night and have superb camouflage they are notoriously difficult to spot, so we must have disturbed its daytime resting place in the stony silt of the river bed.  Stoneloaches were listed by the Environment Agency in their fish survey of dead fish following a spillage of slurry from a farm above Frome in the spring of 2016, but they weren’t listed in either of their August 2016 or August 2019 surveys.  We have read that Stoneloaches prefer very clean, unpolluted stony streams and they will not tolerate even mildly polluted waters, so their appearance in this stretch of water is the best yardstick we can have for the current state of the river.

Crayfish Millers Thumb 2American Signal crayfish and Miller’s Thumb

During the search we netted lots of almost transparent freshwater shrimps, tiny signal crayfish, minnows, miller’s thumbs, mayfly nymphs and several larval creatures and worms which we were totally unable to identify and my daughter named ‘Weird Creature 2″!! [update: Mark Wilson from Ispot believes this to be Mayfly lava – ephemera danica]

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Apart from the stoneloach, we were most pleased to find yet more caddis fly pupa cases, again clinging to weed covered stones which we believed to be Agapetus fuscipes but which we will have to check to be sure.

Update:

Having failed to get a response from our usual bibles – Ispot/Project Noah/Twitter, we approached Paul Kenyon of Fly Fishing Devon for advice after reading his extremely informative article on caddis flies on his website.  He was very helpful and wrote:

“I think your pictures are cases of Glossosomatidae (Saddle-case caddis).
As you know the case may contain larva of the genus Agapetus or the genus Glossosoma.  Distinguishing between them would involve examining the underside of the case and extracting the larva; there are 3 species in each genus.”

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A group of men from the Frome Angling Association arrived as we were sweeping, and we had a long chat.  They were a work party clearing the river weed and the overhanging branches and trailing dog rose briars from the bank.  They were aware of an Otter holt downriver and said that a fisherman and his son had seen a large Otter swimming upriver through this spot the previous evening which was very good news as we hadn’t found any signs of spraint or pad marks along the beach.

One also mentioned the large fish head and scales which had been found earlier that morning at one of the pegs which he believed to be Otter predation, however we  understood that Otters always eat the head first and quite often leave the rest of the fish, but we could of course be mistaken.  We were also unable to find the Otter spraint which he thought was close to the kill.

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On a more cheerful note, we were extremely pleased to see a male and female Goosander with six or more young.  We haven’t seen any Goosanders for years along this stretch of river so it is really exciting if they have returned.  A cautionary note from my husband who pointed out that we were pretty close to the nearby lake where we have often seen Goosanders which is just a short flight away – ah well, we live in hope!  But we did see our usual Little Egret although no signs of Heron, Coot or Mallard.

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Heading home rather sunburnt and a little wearily after a magical afternoon wading in the river, recapturing the joys of childhood days with jam jars and bamboo stick nets, the meadow had still more to offer in the shape of a 14 spot ladybird and a Grey Dagger moth caterpillar – it’s such a haven for wildlife which keeps on showing us new species!Ladybird 14 spot.jpg14 spot ladybird

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We also noticed a few butterflies including a Comma, a Red Admiral, quite a few Small Whites and also saw 3 Red Kites, 2 Buzzards and a Raven hovering over an adjacent field where the farmer was harvesting the hay.  A good day.

8th July 2020 / Temp: 18 C / Water Level: Low

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Today’s Otter hunt got off to a sparkling start when we spotted 3 fresh, 3 recent and 2 old spraint on one of the bridge piers and another fresh deposit of spraint on a boulder in the river shallows.  All of them were accompanied by a good scattering of crayfish pearls and the last one was particularly red.

But the day belongs to the ‘bonking beetle’ season!  Red Soldier beetles – their colour so bright, particularly on a dull day, that they always draw the eye and it certainly seemed as if every umbellifer and creeping thistle head was covered with these busy beetles, either crawling over the surface looking for females, flying in and jostling for position or, for the lucky ones, mating.  And, despite lowering skies and a brisk wind tossing the trees and flattening the grass, there were also uncountable numbers of  bees swarming over the brambles and meadow grasshoppers leaping or flying to safety at our every step.DSCN0283 (4)

It was also good to spot a Red Bug feeding among the stems of a large clump of water forget-me-nots and a Common Green Shield bug landing obligingly on my hand because there were few butterflies – only three small whites, two small tortoiseshell and a single red admiral; the damselflies also appear to have stayed in bed, just a couple of banded demoiselles were all that we could spot.  Several ladybirds, the most common being the dreaded harlequins, although most interestingly there were 2 harlequins sitting very close to the discarded shell of a ladybird pupa but with no sign of the ladybird itself – foul play at foot?

A few water birds, including a moulting male and a female Mallard, we disturbed two Herons who took off from the water as we arrived and soon disappeared from sight over the meadows, followed soon afterwards by the ghostly white figure of a Little Egret.  We could hear a Green Woodpecker in the distance and a very cross Magpie close to.  Blackbirds and Wrens made their presence felt by the continuous calls and were soon joined by the chattering of a colony of Rooks and the coos of the Wood Pigeons.  A small party of Swallows suddenly appeared over the trees and we watched delighting in their aerobatic displays and swooping, swirling flight.  The single Buzzard circling over the trees was silent but intent on his hunt for food, but preferring easy prey like young birds from their nest or small mammals but the Swallows’ fast flight make them too hard to catch.

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There were woolf spiders everywhere as usual but few other ground creatures, however we did see a Rove beetle (most likely Philonthus splendens) crawling in and out of the holes in a dried cow pat at top speed, in fact so fast checking every hole it was very difficult to catch sight of him on the surface to grab a photo.

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While checking one of the beaches where the river widens, the water level drops and the current is particularly fast, we came across small round caddis pupa cases clinging to a stone.  These might well be the Glossosomatidae caddis (Agapetus fuscipes) which are small (3-7 mm) and often present in large numbers on the upper surface of stones in fast flowing sections of rivers.

They are thought to be the oldest (i.e. most primitive in evolutionary terms) type of case-making caddis. The more familiar caddis which make tubular cases from sand, stones or vegetation are thought to be a later evolutionary development.

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We cannot be certain as we have never seen them before but they certainly looked much rounder, more igloo like, than the abandoned dried up more tubular caddis cases on a nearby stone.

It would be very welcome if it is Agapetus fuscipes as this is a caddisfly that only seems to occur in unimpacted streams and therefore can be a suitable indicator species for natural conditions. A. fuscipes is very susceptible to organic pollution and the species has decreased in the Netherlands because of human activities which caused organic pollution and hydromorphological degradation.

21st June 2020

Father’s Day

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A strong breeze and overcast skies but thankfully the rain held off and the sun shone intermittently, so the perfect day for a kick-sampling, especially with such willing helpers!

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In the rush to leave the house, we forgot the hand lenses and that, coupled with the uncertain light and the pretty indifferent photographs made identification difficult.  However,  at least we saw, as with the the sampling last year, lots of freshwater shrimps, water fleas, worms, leeches and blackfly lava.

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Both burrowing (above) and swimming mayfly nymphs were found in our trays as well as a damselfly nymph.  This latter specimen proved to be challenging until we read that sometimes they are seen without tails after a predator attack so until we discover anything to the contrary, we will go with that explanation.

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We were a little disappointed not to find signs of any fish at all, not even minnows, or Signal crayfish, Ramshorn shells or even river mussels all of which we found at last year’s sampling.  Due to the coronavirus epidemic we were a month later than last year but this shouldn’t have made a difference to some of these species.  However, our disappointment was mitigated by at last identifying a stone clinger, a Yellow May nymph, specimens of which we found last year and always love to see – sadly the photograph really doesn’t do it justice.

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We might have been disappointed but luckily our helpers weren’t – they  jumped up and down with excitement, shrieked and shouted at every examined bucket sample, and enjoyed the afternoon’s foray immensely.  The thorough-going joy of young children is so very heartening, as is their endless enthusiasm for every last shrimp and flea!!

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We decided we would try the same spot again in the next couple of weeks and sample the other side of the river as the side we chose is very shallow and often exposed when the water levels are low, but nevertheless we had expected to find much more life in the river here as it was much less turbid that last year’s site.

We saw only two small tortoiseshell butterflies, a single banded demoiselle damselfly (which may have been due to the strong wind and overcast skies) several undistinguished small brown moths and a Green Orb/Cucumber Green Orb spider, the first sighting for us along our stretch of the river.

14th June 2020 / Temp: 20 C / Water Level: Low / 2.30 – 3.15pmDSCN0103 (3)

Mixed weather with sunny intervals and when the sun did appear it was very hot, but the river meadow looked very fresh and green after the morning’s drenching and very heavy rain storm.  The scarcity of butterflies and damselflies could be because of the weather however we did see 4 Small Tortoiseshell butterflies, a single White-legged damselfly, a handful of Banded Demoiselles and a couple of Beautiful Demoiselles.  DSCN0112 (3)

Walking along the side of the rhyne we admired the beautiful yellow flags, already beginning to go over.  How fleeting the flowering season is, one  blink and they are gone, and the chance of seeing them is over for another year; luckily the water-forget-me-not are longer lasting and we will enjoy them for weeks to come.

We spotted a Scarlet Tiger moth resting on a reed in the rhyne, flashing its very dramatic colouring which drew the eye once noticed but almost over-looked in the mass of greenery as was a Pellucid hover fly displaying its distinctive patterned wings while it harvested the nectar from a spray of newly-opened elderflower.

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What was so very pleasing was the sighting of fresh Otter spraint, the first on the path beside the river which included some white crayfish pearls and the second on the path along the rhyne, which was chock full of blue crayfish parts, including a complete claw!  When we reached the bridge, there were two separate fresh spraint on the pier.  We haven’t seen so much Otter spraint, four lots within a hundred yards of each other for 6 months or more.

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We had a short chat with the crayfish trapper who was tending his traps for the first time of the year, a catch of 125, which is half the number he can collect during the height of the season.  He said that the river had only just warmed sufficiently for the crayfish to emerge and be active enough to trap so this is perhaps another reason the Otter are now back on our stretch.  Whist we stood chatting beside a large bed of nettles, we suddenly caught sight of a small group of strange looking creatures which on closer examination were revealed to be ladybird pupa and identified at home as of a 2-spot ladybird.

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Sharing the same leaf was a plant bug, one of the vast number of myriad species, which we tentatively identified as possibly plagiognathus arbstorum which are often found on nettles.  We spotted more and more – including lots of ladybird lavae, mostly harlequin but a few 7-spot, a wandering pond snail – wandering up a reed, two areas of nettles sporting a writhing mass of black peacock butterfly caterpillars, a small pale netted slug who must have enjoyed the downpour earlier, and a rather jolly Common Red Soldier beetle, triumphantly celebrating reaching the heights of a large welted thistle!

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Very, very few birds, a few Blackbirds, a Wren and Jackdaws, we heard a Buzzard but no signs of any water birds at all, but the number of insects enlivened the afternoon’s saunter around the river meadow.

1st June 2020 / Temp: 23C / Water Level: Low / 10.30 – 11.45pm

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It is officially the first day of summer after the sunniest May on record and almost unbelievably we awoke to yet another beautiful morning, sunny and warm with a welcome fresh breeze.  Today’s magical moment – hearing a Grasshopper Warbler!

We arrived at the river to be greeted by a family of Swallows swooping and skimming across the meadows – such a happy sight – the cows have been in the fields so there will be a good many insects for the Swallows to feed on.  It’s always a little shocking to see the shorn fields after haymaking but a great relief to us – wading through knee-high grasses, lumpy tussocks and hidden holes had become increasingly exhausting.

There were no signs of Otter at our first three sites which always puts a bit of a damper on our day but damselflies rising from the plant filled rhyne, a Little Egret at the weir,  a pair of Swans and four cygnets, a pair of Mallard and then a female with three young on the river lifted our spirits considerably.

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Walking the river bank, watching the damselflies (Banded Demoiselles, Common Blues and Blue-tailed) cheered us up as did the sight of a dozen Mandarin ducks and another 6 or so Mallard, and then, by the time we reached the last site and found 3 fresh spraint and 4 recent, we were pretty pleased and at peace with the world.  We also saw a Greenfinch, Great Tit, Heron, Magpie, Green Woodpecker, Pied Wagtail as well as Wrens, Chaffinches, Jackdaws and Crows, but when we then caught sight of a Dipper and on the way back stood beside a tree which was surrounded by scrubby and bushy undergrowth on the edge of the water meadow hardly able to believe our ears – hearing the first Grasshopper Warbler we have heard for nearly  50 years – our cup runneth over!

Grasshopper Warbler Tom Tams northumberlandcopyright : Tom Tams

This cracking photograph of a Grasshopper Warbler was taken yesterday and posted on twitter by Tom Tams of Northumberland.  He was a good deal luckier than us, his warbler posed like this out in the open and whirred for over half an hour so he was able to take his time and get a collection of brilliant shots.

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We rested at the far end of our stretch having found a comfortable grassy hummock among the fading common poppies so we could watch the damselfies (almost exclusively Common Blues here) and examined some tiny brilliantly yellow and black bees, their legs swollen by such huge bags of pollen, it seemed impossible that they would be able to lift off the ground.  They were never still and so quite impossible to photograph and so intent were we on the bees, it was some time before the continuing bites on our backs and legs alerted us to the ants nest we were sitting on!  When we quickly jumped up we could see the ants scurrying around, four at a time lifting the lavae we had disturbed and carrying off to who knows where!

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It was a relief to observe the other, less aggressive insects we spotted on our way back – several Painted Lady and a Speckled Wood butterflies, lots of soldier beetles, both on the brambles and one even on a dried cow pat (evidently they are beloved of Brown Trout so the fish must be feasting as we see so many all along the river meadows).  So many spiders webs slung in canopies in the bramble bushes and bees everywhere – mostly honey bees but a few buff-tailed and a scattering of hover flies to make up the numbers.

Taken altogether, it was a very satisfying morning’s scout – how will we cope when the inevitable happens and these long days of hot sun, clear skies and air full of birds, butterflies and damselflies come to an end?

Whit Sunday / 25th May 2020 / Temp: 24C / Water Level: Low / 12.45 – 4pm

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Our first sighting of what we think is a Diving beetle (Colmbetes fuscus) which we were surprised to read spend a good deal of their time out of the water.

It was such a lovely peaceful afternoon by the river – hot, full sun, wall to wall blue cloudless sky and a constant gentle breeze through the trees to send dappled sunlight moving across the grasses and massed cow parsley in full bloom.  Watching the occasional fish breaking the surface of the river coated with whisps of willow seeds to catch midges or mayflies and the damselflies flitting from plant to plant or chasing the females.

The tiny beetles on the hogweed below (always a feast of insects) are even more problematic.  After a good deal of page ruffling, googling and exhaustive searching we think there is a possiility that this might be a bird nest carpet beetle (Anthrenus pimpinellae) or varied carpet beetle but this is possibly subject to change at any time!

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Today was a check on two sites (no fresh spraint) and a celebration of insects – particularly the profusion or the first summer explosion of damselflies!

Our precious White-legged damselfly which we always have difficulty in spotting and even more difficulty in photographing…..

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and almost the first signs of summer on the river –  two mating Banded Demoiselle damselflies…

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a female Banded Demoiselle damselfy ….

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and finally one of a pair of males, sunning themselves beside the river.

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24th May 2020 / Temp: 20C / Water Level: Low / 3.30 pm

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A very warm, beautifully sunny, Sunday afternoon on the Whitsun bank holiday weekend during lock-down Coronavirus pandemic when we have been asked to walk locally rather than drive long distances to honey-pot sites, so we shouldn’t have been surprised at the considerable number of people enjoying this stretch of an idyllic trout river.  This, together with catching sight of Ernie the bull with his heiffers in the corner of the field made our checking of the Otter sites pretty rapid.  Disappointing to find neither spraint nor pad marks.  We disturbed a swimmer tucking into his pasta salad on the last beach, he was perfectly amenable and volunteered that he had cycled over from Bristol (not exactly local) and had lived in the Frome area for years and had wanted to revisit old haunts.

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It was difficult to see very much of interest but we did note in passing that the water lillies were showing golden yellow so it wouldn’t be very long before they opened.  No luck at the bridge pier site where we had seen spraint on our last check nor on the stones at the edge of the river, but we did arrive just at the peak of the Mayfly hatch and stood for ages watching the spinners dance above the water.  What a wonderfully mesmerising sight it is!

Moving on to the next site and again no fresh spraint and although there were three old spraints on one of the beaches there were no signs of recent activity.

16th May 2020 / Temp: 16 C / Water Level: Low / 2.40pm

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Beautiful day, sunny and warm with a fairly strong breeze and a perfect day to check two of our sites.  Very, very pleased to see recent Otter spraint under the bridge, so long since we have seen spraint here, not since the start of the incessant rains of autumn and winter turned the fast flowing river into a torrent, substantially raising the water level and flooded all the beaches – this makes two of our six sites along this stretch with Otter spraint – good news indeed.

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We love walking the narrow rhyne which runs parallel to the main river, part of the old canal and sluice system for flooding the fields in winter, as it is always good hunting ground for insects and water plants.     The water level is very low here so it is always surprising to see so many mayfly duns rising from the stream, although not nearly so many as from the river, still a good number.  We also watched for the first time this year a small swarm of male spinners yo-yoing up and down above the stream, like painted Masai warriors at their jumping initiation into manhood ceremony and probably both for the same reason – to impress any passing females.  Seeing the two close together the metamorphosis is more noticeable – the pale almost cream coloured bodies and wings of the duns and the dark bodied, transparent wings of the spinners.

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As always, lots of spiders, including this Garden spider – we see quite a number of these but evidently in a recent survey spiders throughout the  country are in decline, by 7% in the last 50 years while freshwater insects like dragonflies and caddisflies have inceased.

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We have certainly seen more alder flies than ever before this year, one even landed on my hand when we briefly sat and rested, and also saw our first small and barely noticeable Blue-tailed damselfly as well as the flashy Beautiful Demoiselles both male and female.

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The Garden spider has rather pretty markings but for colour combinations it is difficult to rival the Common Malachite beetle with its vivid scarlet spots and black and white tail.   They are most common in lowland meadows bordering farms like this one and as well as feeding on pollen they predate on small insects.  Lots of crane flies as always, including a yellow/orange bodied one but too fast to ID, a sepsid fly tied to a cow parsley stalk by silken threads and a number of Soldier beetles and Grey Sailor beetles (a species previously unknown to us).

Good to see 3 Mandarin ducks, 1 pair of Mallard with 6 ducklings and later on another 4 Mallard and then another pair without offspring.  Chaffinches, Whitethroats, Great Tits and Blackbirds were the birds in full song, Jackdaws chattering in an adjoining field, while several Crows and a Heron flew over.

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When we think about certain insects declining, this is unfortunately not the case of the harlequin ladybirds which appear to be thriving which given that they predate on the native ladybirds is most unfortunate.  Like the American Signal crayfish which has had such a devastating effect on our native White Claw crayfish, the number of foreign species seems to be increasing at a time when our own native flora and fauna are already under threat from climate change and intensive farming, which adds yet another destructive challenge.

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It was surprisingly hard work walking across the meadow as there was no discernable path and the grass was very long and tussocky so hidden mole hills of which there are plenty and dips and uneven ground are unseen at this time of the year before haymaking.  The honey bee which hitched a ride on a trouser leg must have been feeling pretty dozey or comfortable because it didn’t fall off for ages until eventually brushed off by an extra tall clump of grasses.  Honey bees and buff-tailed bees are certainly in the ascendant in the meadows as far as we have noticed.

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End of Coronavirus lock-down for one fly fisherman at least – perfectly timed for the mayfly hatch tempting the brown trout in this part of the river to rise.  We have never seen these fish leaping almost their entire length out of the water to catch the mayflies as we have watched them farther downstream – over-indulged with insects here perhaps!

12th May 2020

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The arrival of summer is heralded for some by the first Swallows, the first Swifts  or hearing the first Chiff Chaff but for me summer is a swarm of midges over the water and the mayfly hatch.  What can be more pleasurable than sitting on a river bank, in mid to late afternoon in May with the sun warm on your back, watching and trying to keep count as one dun after another rises, rests on the surface while their wings fill and then lift up to fly slowly, somewhat haphazardly above the river and towards the bank onto the vegetation to rest.  Some simply don’t make it, unable to rise they remain on the water providing a tasty morsel to a passing brown trout.

Another absolute delight of the afternoon was the number of Banded Demoiselles appearing for the first time on our patch.  The males were so dark, their colour verged on indigo – vivid and spectacular – but they were outshone by the females,  whose bodies and wings were burnished gold with not a hint of green or brown by the bright sunlight – quite magical!  Orange Tip, Brimstone and Peacock butterflies add to the colour and pleasure of the day.

However, the overwhelming good news of this afternoon’s saunter in the sunshine along the river bank was without doubt the discovery at the third of our four sites of 2 fresh and 1 pretty recent Otter spraint, all showing “Frome red” and filled with the crunched shell of an unfortunate signal crayfish, and to dispel any possible doubt – a single crayfish pearl alongside.  Frome Reds is the name we give to local otters as, unlike otter spraint in most parts of the country, its spraint is red-brown from a diet almost entirely of signal crayfish rather than the more common black-brown.  We haven’t logged spraint here since last September and have felt pretty down-hearted because at one time this site was one of the most prolific; three spraints at one site out of four isn’t overwhelming but perhaps promise of a better summer than we had feared.

Another hopeful sign was sighting a pair of Mallard with 8 ducklings and farther downstream a single female Mallard with 6 ducklings which as we had been so concerned recently about the lack of water birds was very good news.  Spotting a Little Egret and a Heron flying over are also augers well.

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While Mayflies, Damselflies and Butterflies are the most arresting insects, some bugs and beetles are also very colourful.  Good to see a froghopper clinging to a plant on the beach, or a daggerfly perched ready to pounce or the many bumblebees, mining and honey bees or to watch a cranefly lifting from the tall grasses at almost every step, as frequent as grasshoppers in high summer and dung flies in late spring.

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We spotted this daggerfly, Empis tessellata feeding on cowparsley.  Though it feeds on nectar it is also a predator and catches other insects using its long pointed proboscis to pierce their bodies. Males of E. opaca and E. tessellata present a ‘gift’ to the female, in the form of a dead insect, before mating takes place. Females will not mate with males who do not present a gift.

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We feel so fortunate still to be able to walk the river meadows and banks and note and enjoy the wildlife and for sometimes precious hours at a time forget about pandemics and covid19 and coronavirus and children’s jobs in jeopardy and their businesses on the edge of a precipice and simply enjoy the moment another mayfly rises.

7th May 2020

We have been asked by iNaturalist on behalf of Durham University to post the photograph of the Beautiful Demoiselle (below) with details of the site, date, time of day to aid their research into mapping wing colourations of Beautiful Demoiselles across the UK.  https://www.inaturalist.org/projects/british-demoiselles

During the 2018 flight season, a study of Demoiselles in Great Britain was launched through iNaturalist to learn more about how wing colouration changes through time and in different locations in these species.  So far, researchers have measured the relative size of male Banded Demoiselles’ wingspots and have discovered that there is a change in the average wingspot size over the flight season: males emerging early in the year tend to have smaller wingspots than males that emerge in the peak season.

The published Project Study goes on : “These findings are only the beginning. In the future, we will develop new methods to extract measurements of female wing colour (e.g., how light or dark they are), in order to test whether female traits might respond evolutionarily to mating competition between species. We also plan to use the methods and findings developed in Britain to serve as a case study for expanding analyses to the entire range of banded and beautiful demoiselles.”

4th May 2020 / Temp: 17.5 C / Water Level : MedDSCN9557 (2).JPG

A sunny but surprisingly cool afternoon for our exercise walk given the temperature, but the breeze blowing across the river meadow felt quite chilly and proved for the most part impossible to avoid, when we did it was warm.  Maybe the strong breeze was the reason for so few birds, butterflies and insects – a Wren, a Swan, 3 Mallard, a Crow, a few Wood Pigeons and a Chaffinch plus two Ravens flying over and as we were leaving a single Tree Creeper.  Great excitement near the bridge as a couple out walking spotted what they thought were rare birds and on their description, we began to  feel hopeful too, thinking they might be Harlequin ducks – sad to say they were Mandarins, pretty enough but rather frequent sightings along this stretch of the river.

Most of the butterflies we saw were Orange Tips, both male and female, a couple of Brimstones and a Small Tortoiseshell and as to the insects, mostly the usual Common Craneflies, Buff-tail bumblebees, more of the Common Snout hoverflies but we did see the first Harlequin ladybirds of the year – not a welcome sight.  To set against our gloom at the Harlequins as we were walking back along the river edge we saw our first damselfly of the year, the brilliantly vivid colours of the Beautiful Demoiselle.

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We think it was probably an immature male because although the wings were copper coloured, the body was a dark blue not green in the case of the female.  It was so lovely to see the first damselfly, a real harbinger of summer.  We also feel sure we spotted a mayfly but it seemed to be blown in the wind faster than normal so we cannot be absolutely sure, particularly as it seems a littl early; that having been said, just about everything has been early this year, the result of the mild, wet autumn and winter no doubt.

We eventually managed to identify what we believe to be an umbellifer longhorn beetle from sight and a very indifferent photograph but the snail, spider and other insects must remain mysteries.  Our butterfly binoculars have proved a godsend in their ability to focus on butterflies and insects, however they do highlight in a pretty comprehensive way one of the major drawbacks of our small camera in helping with identification.  on the other hand, for two such very amateurish observers, we seem to manage pretty well.

25th April 2020 / Temp: 15 C / Water Level: Med-LowDSCN9511 (5).JPG

A walk around the water meadow, checking two of the remaining Otter survey sites during our exercise hour.  These fractured checks (we cannot do a full survey in an hour) are not altogether satisfactory but still give an idea if the Otters are out and about in our area.  Again no signs of spraint, but two lots of pad marks in the soft mud beneath the footbridge and leading away from the stream.

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We did trudge rather as the grasses were almost knee-high in parts which made for slow going, although we could sometimes follow animal tracks (probably badger and roe deer) which made it a good deal easier.  Milky, thin high cloud and hazy sunshine and signs of late spring were everywhere, not only in the frequency of plants flowering, the increase in the number of bees but also in the number of different insects appearing.

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Green nettle weavils and swollen tummied Green dock beetles clinging to their host plants, Spotted Craneflies, Common Craneflies with their gangly legs, floppy and ungainly amongst the grasses, so many Lesser and Yellow Dungflies flying up at our every step and St Mark’s flies everywhere, a few mating mid-flight.

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We spotted two new species for us, an astonishing number of Common Snout Hoverfly (above) catching the eye with their striking orange-red coloured bodies almost completely hidden when at rest and an Alderfly (below) with its black lacey-veined wings looking for all the world like ornate leaded glass windows.

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So many black spiders skittering along the ground, in amonst the tussocks and running into the dried mud and cracked crevices around the beach, the only reconizeable ones the female Woolf spiders with their noticeable egg sac, and possibly common crab spiders, as well as garden spiders, the webs slung across the bushes.

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Lots of summer flowers beginning to come into bloom, the scattered plants of common field speedwell sprinkled amongst the grass, cow parsley, greater stitchwort, buttercups, red campion, cream and purple comfrey, white and red deadnettles, groundsel, herb bennet, hop trefoil, welted thistle  and ladies smock as well as wild garlic all now in flower and then suddenly we spotted a lovely Large Red Damselfly fly up from the river and over the field, our first damselfly of the year, a real promise of summer.   Several butterflies – Brimstones, Orange Tips (male and female), Peacocks and one Small Tortoiseshell (although we saw several clusters of their writhing hydra-like caterpillars in the nettle beds), and one Common Blue, another welcome sign of summer on its way.

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Only one pair of Mallard in the river but a pair of Swans flew over, and we put up a Mandarin duck.  A few songbirds – Blackbirds, Chaffinches, Wrens and a Whitethroat, Jackdaws and Crows flying over, three Buzzards circling above the trees, we could hear a Green Woodpecker drumming across the meadow and a Raven croaking in the distance but no more – maybe the birds were as tired and dozey in the afternoon sun as we were!

21st April 2020 / Temp: 11 C / Water Level: Med – LowDSCN9449 (2).JPG

A bright and sunny morning with a north-easterly breeze, thankfully less strong than yesterday, so walking the Otter sites was a most enjoyable way of using our allotted exercise hour.  The first two sites were devoid of any evidence of Otter, the only sign of life a Pied Wagtail which shot out of nowhere and landed on the electric fence close by the bridge, tail flicking in contempt at my lumbering progress.  The thick beds of crosswort caught the eye, the new small yellow flowers glowing from the shade of the hedge and the great expanse of wild garlic under the trees and along the bank were in full starred bloom, so beautiful particularly as their sometimes overpowering scent seemingly largely absent we were glad to find.

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Finding one recent spraint among the roedeer slots on the beach was a great relief,  although paltry compared to the same month in the two previous years, as we hadn’t found spraint on this site since October we were happy to see any at all.  We set up 6 Mandarin Duck and 4 Mallard so at least there were some water birds but no sign of Goosander, Heron, Little Egret or Cormorant and even the pair of Swans which we see at every visit were unaccountably missing.

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Our arrival on the beach at the junction of the two rivers alarmed a Kingfisher who gave a shrill warning peep as he shot downriver.  It was, as ever, the most productive area for Otter signs, 1 fresh spraint, 2 recent and a scattering of signal crayfish pearls – the first since the autumn.  Here we sat on a ledge half way up the bank and rested, mesmerised by  watching the current carrying bubbles downstream, by the sun’s reflections on the water sending flickering lights across the tall rushes, cow parsley and garlic mustard  crowding onto the beach.  Here also were the loveliest sounds of late spring  – Chiff Chaffs, Whitethroats and Yellowhammers singing, rippling water and the hum of Buff-tail bumblebees and the sights – St Mark’s flies, Honey bees, a dandelion filled with three tiny 16-spot ladybirds, cow parsley, red campion, buttercups, pear and apple blossom and white comfrey all newly opened.

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With a final flourish and fanfare of trumpets to our morning – three Swallows appeared, swooping and swerving around at high speed above our heads, sun on their backs, the unseasonally strong warmth bringing out lots of insects – what more delight could they hope to find after flying half way around the world?

20th April 2020 / Temp: 11.5 C / Water Level: Med-LowDSCN9410 (3).JPG

A brilliantly sunny morning, cloudless blue skies but a very strong and cold northerly wind – the sun is summer, the wind is winter!  Disappointing not to find any signs of Otter at any of the four sites we walked to on our exercise hour.  Six months have now passed since we have seen regular spraint and when we found a fresh one on our last visit, we hoped this was to be the first of many.  Unfortunately this now doesn’t appear to be the case.

Lack of Otter signs appears to be matched by the fall in the number of water birds and certainly the number of birds and insects were also less than our last visit, possibly due to the cold wind or even the time of day.  However we did see and hear Chaffinches, Wrens, Great Tits and Blue Tits, Blackbirds, a couple of Whitethroats and Chiff Chaffs, a wheeling Buzzard and Red Kite but only a single Mallard, no sign of  Swans, Cormorants, Little Egrets, Herons, Mandarin Ducks, Coots which had seemed permanent residents.

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It wasn’t all gloom and doom, lots of spiders webs, lots of midges and gnats both above the water and above the banks, many of them caught in the webs most of which appear to be cironomids, the non-biting midge, the lavae of which we usually find in our occasional kick-sweep surveys of the river, so it was fun to see them close to.  We remember the Rossendale Fairies photograph posted in a local northern newspaper showing a particular shot of these midges and claiming they were fairies!

Orange tips (m&f) and a single Peacock the only butterflies but quite a number of mining bees, we saw both Ashy and Tawny as well as a Beefly and a few Honey bees, Hover flies and St Mark’s flies.  A phenomenon remarked on by fishermen was very noticeable today, the number of St Mark’s flies being blown onto the river; we didn’t see even one being taken by a fish which we found surprising.  Meadow foxtails and Buttercups were the only new plants flowering, there were an increasing number of the delicate Lady smock, Red campion and Cow parsley and still a clump of Marsh marigolds and well as Lesser celandines still hanging on.  Overall we were glad to hurry back to get out of the wind and rest up!

11th April 2020 / Temp: 19 C / Water Level: Falling

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Another beautiful spring morning and we took the opportunity of our exercise allowance to check out just one of our Otter sites where we were pleased to see two sets of Otter pad marks, one set in a soft muddy beach of the river and the other in the overflow tunnel leading down from the rill.  No signs of spraint at either site and none on the log where we had found spraint on a previous visit.  It’s frustrating – we can tell there are Otters about, but they seem always to be passing through and not stopping to fish and eat even though the Signal crayfish (their favourite food locally) should be pretty active by now as the river water temperature is rising.

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The warm sunny weather of the past week when temperatures are closer to summer than spring has encouraged plants to flower so not only was the meadow covered in splashes of golden dandelions to add to the lesser celandines but the beautiful pale lilac lady’s smock, garlic mustard, birds eye and field speedwell, daisies, chickweed, red and white dead-nettle but also the cow parsley and red campion were just starting to open and the hedges were alight with young leaves and blackthorn blossom.

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These two arum lillies are on a steeply sloping ivy covered bank where the plants are growing in profusion.  Wild foragers would be delighted with the  good spread of young nettles, chives and wild garlic scattered around the meadow, but it needs to be quick, as they are just on the point of flowering.  If you are foraging you may be tempted by today’s FT Weekend delicious looking recipe by Rowley Leigh for Nettle Fettuccine with scallops and lemon https://www.ft.com/content/21f475d6-7861-11ea-af44-daa3def9ae03DSCN9322 (6).JPG

Well worth reading this witty account of Rowley instructing his photographer in the art of home made fettucine – I will never cook scallops again without hearing “Now, Andy, Now” 2 seconds after putting them in the pan!

Lots of insects now emerging (and mating) as with the green dock beetle pictured here, the much smaller male mounted on the larger female.  The rather beguiling primrose coloured grass spider below was dangling from a grass, dozens and dozens of small black spiders scurrying everywhere, uncountable numbers of dung flies flying up at every step almost, both Lesser and Yellow dung flies (even though we couldn’t see any dung and the cows hadn’t been in the meadow all winter given the relentless rain making their pasture a quagmire). DSCN9317 (4).JPG

Midges by the ocean full!  Drone flies, Hover flies, fat bumblebees and also butterflies now appearing in greater numbers at least 8 Peacock, half a dozen or so Orange Tip, a single Comma, several Brimstones, one Small White and two Small Tortoiseshell.

The surprise was seeing St Mark’s flies gathering above the small beach where the narrow rill widens out into a shallow pool.  We perched on the bank and rested and watched them swirling just above our heads.  At least two weeks early but no doubt the unseasonably high temperatures of the past few days tempted them out.  As always, sitting still, even for 5 minutes or so meant we saw and heard more – a newly arrived migrant Whitethroat singing (a first sighting for us here) a Great Spotted Woodpecker drumming, and Rooks making their usual racket from a rookery close by.

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Returning to the river and clambering down the bank to check for spraint, we suddenly spotted a slug, quietly feeding DSCN9305 (3).JPG

on a fat earth worm, not a practice we were familiar with.

Further investigation when we returned home revealed that slugs being the ultimate scavengers will feed on dead snails, slugs and earth worms as well as fungi but evidently there is a species called a shell-slug Testacella, which lives underground, is rarely seen, and lives entirely on live worms and has a distinctive small ear-shaped external shell on its rear end.  My extremely scanty knowledge of slugs makes me think this looks more likely to be a Tawny slug by its markings, but as it kept his head and tail well hidden so we will never know for sure. DSCN9303 (2).JPG

On the same dry sandy bank we also noticed 5 or 6 small volcanos which we always associate with  Tawny mining bees, although we didn’t notice any of them flying around.

We spotted a reasonable haul of birds – as well as the Whitethroat and Woodpecker, we saw and heard lots of Wrens, Great Tits, Blue Tits, Chaffinches, Blackbirds and Robins singing, displaying and searching for nesting material; we put up a Little Egret, saw a Swan and several Mallard along the river and heard a distant Raven and Magpie and of course saw lots of ubiquitous Wood pigeons, Pheasants and Gulls everywhere.

Dipper - John Hansford.jpgDipper photographs / copyright John Hansford

We were also so pleased to catch a glimpse of a sole Dipper (no sign of its mate but our first sighting of Dippers this year).  John Hansford has captured these superb photographs of a Dipper showing off its brilliant white bib against its chocolate brown body.

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A beautiful spring morning with the warmth of summer, a welcome balm against the horrors of coronavirus news.  We count ourselves very fortunate to be able to enjoy this all too brief respite.

30th March 2020 / Temp: 8 C / Water Level: Medium – falling

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A brief exercise-allowance walk to check one of our Otter sites, and sad to say it was bereft of spraint or any signs pf Otter at all.   The weather wasn’t welcoming, the wind cold, the sky overcast and even a sprinkling of icy rain but we trudged along, checking anyway.  Two Canada Geese were occupying the prime spot near the bridge leaving their droppings liberally spread all over the grass, we disturbed four Mallard, two male, two female, all of whom left their footprints in the muddy area around the cattle trough.  No sign of the Little Egret or the Heron or Cormorants, we did however spot the White Pheasant, hunkered down out of the wind but skittering off when we came too close.  It was cheering to see it is surviving, still on the run from the nearby Pheasant Shoot.

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The vivid splash of several golden yellow marsh marigold plants were a very welcome sight of colour in what was a pretty drab scene, white and red deadnettle, dandelions and daisies the only other flowers to show themselves but the blackthorn blossom made a brave show, looking so delicate and fragile in the rain.

Lots of small birds flitting and singing – a Pied Wagtail, Wrens, Blue Tits, Robins, a Chiff-Chaff, Blackbirds, a Song Thrush and of course  the inevitable Crow.  Surprisingly perhaps given the cold wind we also saw a Buff-tailed Bumblebee and Yellow Dungfly – not the sort of weather to see them usually.

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A fairly sizeable tree trunk was slewed across and balanced precariously on the edge of the weir – we have seen more fallen trees in the river this winter than we can ever remember seeing in previous years, a striking reminder of the noticeably high winds of this year’s storms.

25th March 2020 / Temp: 16 C

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There is something very calming about walking beside a river, the water looks gin clear and sparkles as it ripples over unseen stones, the sound is soothing, there is nothing to offend the eye and we can feel ourselves beginning to unwind, forget the looming threat of Coronavirus for a little while, put down the burden of anxiety over children’s jobs and grandchildren’s home schooling, soak up the quiet beauty and relax.

It helps if a Mute Swan drifts by, Persil white, and 4 or 5 Mallard take off with a noisy clatter and many squawks, followed soon after by 2 quieter Mandarin Ducks.  If you can hear Blackbirds and Chiff Chaffs, Wrens and Robins, see at least 5 Small Tortoiseshell butterflies, 2 Brimstones and 2 Peacocks, you feel transported into a different, more innocent world.  It is delightful if you catch sight of a small brown head in the water which, before you can quite absorb what you have seen, dives under water and disappears and you stand, gazing at the swirl of ripples and wonder… could it have been an Otter?  When you then stand, looking at the river to see if something surfaces, but nothing does and you wonder…. was it?

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And then when you cross the meadow to the Mells River rill and begin walking its line and put up a Snipe, not once, but twice, and if this if the first time you have seen the wader for nearly two years you feel pleased to be here on this day at this time when wildlife offers such gifts.

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The Otter spraint we spotted on a log by the rill contained the usual fragments of fish bones but also what looked like the carcass of a water beetle with fringed back legs but impossible to identify without much closer scutiny with a hand lens which we didn’t have with us.

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[Further research revealed that, disappointingly, it was more likely to be a uropod, part of the tail fan, of a signal crayfish.  We should have spotted it earlier, just about every spraint we find is chock full of crayfish remains – they never seem to eat anything else!!]

Every mole hill seemed to have small dusty black spiders running all over them and one had what looked like a dozen or so scattered white slugs’ eggs  – possibly the remains of a ground beetle’s lunch.

Update:  This photograph of the spores of a cauliflower slime mould has been added to Ispot collection to complete the photographic stages in its life cycle.
Now in the Slime Collection here https://www.ispotnature.org/communities/uk-and-ireland/view/project/777371/-the-slime-mould-collection-/observations-gallery

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Which lead us to our final conundrum of the afternoon – a cluster of what looked a brown ball of fluffy cobweb!  Possibly lichen, possibly fungus – we will ponder!

27th March 2020 :  Well, we have to thank Chris Brooks at Ispot for identifying this fungus, which we do, most heartily!  He believes it to be the remaining brown spore mass of an old Slime Mould (Reticularia lycoperdon) commonly called a Cauliflower Slime Mould.  He goes on to write : “Reticularia lycoperdon is usually seen as a whitish blob on wood but within is a brown spore mass. This is revealed once the outer dries and cracks.”  Interestingly, I had taken a photograph of a whitish blob on the other side of the tree, which didn’t look as if it had any connection – here :

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How exciting – how weird and wonderful the natural world is!

24th March 2020 / Temp: 11 C – 13 C / Water Level: Medium – falling

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Cool breeze but sunny and although we were most disappointed not to see any signs of Otter along the whole stretch of our four survey sites – apart from one set of pad marks – we spent an enjoyable morning chasing bees among the red deadnettle and common field speedwel – early bumblebees, buff-tailed bumblebees, honey bees, common drone flies and beeflies all seen without getting a decent photograph of any of them.  Ditto the butterflies – Peacock, Small Tortoiseshell, Brimstone and Green Veined White – all were alusive and far too lively, barely settling for a moment before flitting off or, in the case of the bumblebees, disappearing into the long grass.  How heartening to see so many insects, a good sign of spring.

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