Wild Waterways

Female Otter on the River FromeINQUISITIVE OTTER..jpgc. Tony House

The 21 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.  Asked by The Somerset Otter Group to survey a stretch of  the River for signs of Otters, we were delighted to join their local team and record the results.   Somerset Otter Group

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.

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

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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.

Goosander m&f

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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We did capture a reasonably clear photograph of the Pied Shieldbug – good enough at least to identify a new species for us, and the first 7 spot ladybird of the season so all was not in vain.

We set up the usual handful of Mallard at two of the sites and 2 Little Egret and 2 Mandarin ducks, but there was very little other birds around – the usual Jackdaws and Rooks among the bleached stubble, we heard a Chiff Chaff, a lovely herald of spring, Chaffinches, Blackbirds, Wrens, Robins, Blue Tits, Great Tits and 3 Buzzards circling and circling over the stand of trees.

The large beds of ramsons were in full leaf and several had fat buds about the burst open, we spotted wild chives, lots of lesser celandine and dog’s mercury, dandelions, white deadnettle, bittercress and blackthorn blossom as well as the first flowering cow parsley of the year.

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Walking home along the top track we noticed on the full-sized Ash tree a line of King Alfred’s cakes starting from the first branch and running up the entire length of the trunk!  We had never seen this phenomenon before, usually we saw them in clusters, or a short line, never up the whole tree.

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Always something new to notice – even on trees we had passed dozens and dozens of times before.  Badger diggings and rootlings everywhere alongside their usual well-beaten pathway and both Roe Deer and Muntjac tracks across two of the beaches as well of course the usual dogs and water bird tracks.

It was so good to walk alongside the river checking the beaches, stones and logs for Otter spraint, ambling across the water meadows, feeling the warm sun on our backs and noticing all the many signs of new growth, a blessed few hours during which we were able to forget all about viruses and lock-downs and food shortages and enjoy another world.

18th March 2020 / Temp: 12.5 CDSCN9079 (4).JPG

The wettest autumn and winter on record have made river walks untenable, the fields were often flooded and the ground was always a muddy, sludgy quagmire, so although the sky was overcast with heavy cloud and the stiff breeze pretty chilly, we were relieved to have a dry day to explore.

We were both relieved and delighted when we spotted Otter spraint on a tree root close to the river – our first sighting since September – a completely unprecedentedly long hiatus in Otter activity.  It may have been the high water level and fast current which was the cause but we believe darker plots may have been at work, other enthusiasts bribing the Otters with fish, coaxing and inveigling them to swim upstream  and abandon our stretch for the winter – and yes Simon King – we do mean you!!  We had chatted to the tree surgeons at work on the trees around the telegraph poles one of whom lived close to the naturalist and photographer’s house on the other side of Frome where he said Simon King (who fed them) saw Otters frequently.  We can only hope that come the warmer weather and the Signal Crayfish becoming more active, the Otters might bore of fish and move downstream for more tasty fare.

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The water level had fallen considerably which was a good sign although there was little water bird activity on the river – one Mallard by the weir and two Mallard half a mile downriver, two Cormorants flew over.  If there were almost no water birds, there were plenty of other birds – we heard only the second Chiff Chaff of the season along with seeing lots of noisy Robins declaring their territory, Wrens and of course Crows and Wood Pigeons and our beloved Jackdaws as well as Blue Tits and Blackbirds in full voice.

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The Grey Willow catkins were well-formed but still green but there were a sprinkling of wild flowers in bloom, both white and red deadnettle, dandelion, common speedwell, dog’s mercury, common chickweed, lesser celandine, hairy bittercress and the partially hidden clumps of beautiful white sweet violets. Despite the grey skies and chill wind, spring has definitely arrived!

22nd February 2020DSCN8466 (3).jpg

Last autumn we were in correspondence with the Somerset Environment Agency with regard to the attempted fish survey they carried out in August 2019 which was aborted due to the fallen trees and the turbidity of the water.  Various reasons were discussed as to the cause of the turbity, American Signal crayfish eroding the banks when excavating dens, manure from cattle excreting into the river and run off from fields and water meadows.

We mentioned our observation of reasonably clear, self-cleaning water above the bridge, and murkier, turbid water below.  We had not been aware at that time that Staplemead Creamery had straightened the course of the river from Great Bridge to their factory, reinforced their bank with concrete and moved the weir (see maps below).

Great Bridge.jpg2017 digital map showing the line of the river after the redirection/straightening

Great Bridge_a.jpg1884 OS Map showing the original meander of the River Frome

As Richard Marston writes in his research paper on river behaviour:

Human-induced environmental changes (e.g. in-channel and landscape modifications by protective measures, agriculture, and urbanization on or around floodplain landscapes) and climate change alter flow regime, floodplain-erodibility characteristics, and sediment-transport rates, and thus can significantly affect the patterns of channel evolution and floodplain vegetation patterns and processes.

Moreover, the alterations in river–floodplain system functioning can lead to a decrease in hydrologic connectivity and a degradation of water quality, which in turn lead to a decline in the abundance and diversity of riparian and riverine habitats.

As is often the case, there may not just one cause but a multiplicity of causes which lead to the degradation of water quality and it is worth considering whether the straightening of the river, tarmacing large car parks and paths around the buildings together with concreting the banks and the subsequent increase of run off has had a detrimental effect on the water quality of the river.

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River Insects and Lichens bucking the trend of wildlife losses

Among all the articles despairing the continuing loss of wildlife, a good news story!  Scientist believe that the increase in these insects and lichen could be caused by cleaning the rivers and reducing air pollution.  Whatever the reason, we have noticed lichens and mosses thriving on the trees along the river bank and delighted in the numbers of dragonflies, damselfies and mayflies we see during the warmer summer months  along our stretch of the river.

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/feb/17/river-insects-and-lichens-bucking-trend-of-wildlife-losses

5th February 2020 / Temp: 6.5 C / Water Level: Med. High (falling)

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The above photograph shows the line of the old trail drain which formed part of the catchworks which is almost completely obscured by the dead plants.  From a canal which ran through the farmyard at the top of the slope, water flowed through a system of sluices and down over the water meadows to ensure the ground didn’t freeze during winter.  The farmer said that the canal had long since been filled in and the lines of hatches and ditches had been ploughed over so only the dead straight drain running paralel to the river remains.  In high summer this is a wonderful sight as the banks are filled with flowers and the flowers are filled with dragonflies, damselflies and butterflies.

The trail drain supports just winter dried plants at the moment but the bright warm sunshine has at least attracted clouds of winter gnats and midges along the entire length of the stream and today we disturbed a couple of dozen Mallard who no doubt welcomed the quieter stretches of the drain rather than the more turbulent river, although sadly they hadn’t shared the space with any Otters.   More details about the history of the catchworks can be seen at :   https://historicengland.org.uk/images-books/publications/conserving-historic-water-meadows/heag176-conserving-water-meadows/

Walking along to the next beach we disturbed about six Mandarin Ducks, a few more Mallard but not the two Swans, who studiously ignored us, refusing to get up from their comfortable positions on the bank.  Lots of Badger snuffle holes, enthusiastic diggings, a well defined smeuse through the hedge and a good many mole hills; from the bare winter trees Robins, Wrens, Blackbirds and Great Tits were in fine song, flitting amongst the yellow hazel catkins.

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Thank goodness on our very last site we found twenty plus Otter pad marks across the beach, some signs of Otter presence if not the spraint we had hoped for.  This beach is always sheltered and by now the sun was surprisingly very warm and we regretted not bringing coffee so we could sit in the peace and quiet of the river bank and bask a little!

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Scanning the fields in the hope of Heron or Little Egret before turning back, we suddenly caught sight of a Brown Hare racing along close to the hedge.  We hadn’t gone far across the field away from the first hare when we saw two more – golden brown in the bright sunlight, boxing and sparring until they saw us when the female crouched down so low we could barely see her and the male stood guard.  However, when we began to walk towards them, the male also flattened himself – it was extraordinary how difficult they were to see and how they remained perfectly still until we were quite close when first the female raced off to the fence and soon after the male raced to the gate whereupon the female raced along the fence to join him.  A wonderful sight so early in the year.

We watched the Jackdaws and Rooks constantly moving from field to field, continually chattering and calling to each other.

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By the time we reached the track the sun was even hotter and it felt so springlike that we weren’t surprised to see our first forager bees of the year, all honey bees from the hives near the farmhouse, from where we could hear the constant buzz.  We had already seen snowdrops, red deadnettles and yellow hazel catkins in flower, and the bright blue perriwinkles climbing the lichen encrusted wall was yet another signal that spring must surely be just around the next corner – we will ignore the doomsters who warn of cold, icy, snowy weather yet to come.

4th February 2020 / Temp: 7 C / Water Level: Med. High (falling)DSCN8767 (4).JPG

Bright, clear, sunny morning with blue skies and a chill but envigorating wind so it was a good day to walk along the river checking for Otter spraint.  Again we were disappointed as we saw no signs of Otter at all, no spraint but also no pad marks either.  Since beginning the Otter survey we have never before had such a dry spell of no spraint.  This autumn and winter has been so wet and the river continuously high which may very well account for their absence but it is concerning nevertheless – seeing the glossy sticky buds was a cheerful reminder that winter maybe loosening its grip but hardly compensation for lack of Otter, despite, as always, giving into the temptation since childhood of pinching the bud gently between two fingers to check its level of stickiness – satisfyingly toffee apple tackiness!

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The birds did their best to compensate for the lack of animal activity and were plentiful and in good voice which raised our spirits.   All along the river we could hear them singing as they flitted about the trees, Blue Tits, Great tits, Chaffinches, Wrens, Robins, Blackbirds, a Magpie, a Tree Creeper, Wood Pigeons and Pheasant and also a Kestrel, 2 Buzzards, a Raven, a Green Woodpecker, 2 Heron, 2 Cormorants, Crows, a Little Egret a large flock of forty or more Black Headed Gulls and 5 Herring Gulls – very many more birds that we have heard and seen for a long time.

Unfortunately we also saw two dead Mallard, both well eaten so impossible to see what bird or animal killed them.  We didn’t see any live Mallard, in fact no ducks at all and the pair of Swans haven’t reappeared so we think they are probably sticking to the nearby lake for the winter.

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We saw Snowdrops, Lesser Celandine, Dog’s Mercury in flower and Groundsel, Chickweed and pussy willows all showing colour so a few more days of sunshine should see early signs of spring.  Innumerable numbers of fresh mole hills, worm casts, two female Yellow Dung flies and a solitary Lesser Dung fly as well as white midges and winter gnats were all lured out by the sunshine, so wildlife also seems to be on the move quite early.  Can we hope for an early spring?

9th January 2020 / Temp: 10.5 C / Water Level: High

Sunshine and blue skies meant it was imperative for us to make a dash to the river!  How starved we are of light in winter but this winter with its lowering clouds and leaden skies has been particularly hard to endure; it has been difficult to keep in good spirits when day after day we pull back the curtains to confront a day of yet more rain.

Goldcrest.jpgGoldcrest in Summer – copyright John Hansford

Today was a very welcome change and we set off in good spirits despite wading through the thick quagmire of mud spread out for some distance in front of the five-barred gate. But how could we complain when close by we caught sight of our first Goldcrest in this area, hobnobbing with several Blue Tits – what attractive little birds they are!  A shy Wren as usual flying around stream under the bridge, a nearby Robin giving good song and a Blackbird’s warning call from the hedge – lots of action.

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The river water was of course yet again very high, swirling brown and fast through the sunlit strawlike reeds, but we did see a Coot which was a welcome sight and two Cormorants sitting in judgement on the meadow before them, still and grave high up in a tree, one of them a juvenile.  So maybe we might begin to see the water birds returning.  A local ornithologist reported Mandarin, Goosander, Little Egrets and Mallard aplenty on the nearby lake so no doubt our usual birds are all wintering there.

Two Buzzards were swirling in the clear air above, Jackdaws, Crows, Magpies and Blackheaded Gulls and the lovely sound of a Green Woodpecker eachoing across the fields.

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All the usual suspects as we walked along beside the river – clouds of winter gnats, lots of orange fungus on the cowpats, black spiders dashing around among the grasses, mole hills and worm casts, a sprinkling of white dead nettle in flower, a few white berries still clinging to the snowberry bushes and almost every twig and branch coated with mosses and lichen.  We turn a twig and spot a single perfect Variable Oysterling fungus, we nearly crush a scattering of Candlesnuff fungus in a line beside a black mud-streaked log.DSCN8657 (2).JPG

We crunched across the beach, littered with water smooth stones and fragments of red brick, duck mussel shells, the odd crayfish claws bright red in the sun, crushed land snail shells and what looked like white clam shells, possibly Asian clams which are said to be invading UK waterways.

Along a branch of our loved old Willow, growing amongst the moss, was the lichen below which we initially thought was Common Green Sheild lichen but on closer examination might well have been Punctelia subrudecta (a lichen recently identified for us by Ispot) covered in the white dots that later develop into soralia, the common reproductive structures of lichens.

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No Otter signs yet again.  We do hope that when the water level drops and the river is more calm we may see spraint, worryingly scarce now that an unprecedented three months have passed since we have seen any, but in another three months who knows – the whole scene will have changed, longer days, more sunshine, new growth and then…..

30th December 2019 / Temp: 11 C / Water Level: High

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The sun was shining!  For the first time in what seems months we felt warm sun on our backs as we walked along, pink clouds sailed overhead, the bright light turned the stubble gold, and long, long shadows stretched almost the length of the field.  Wonderful – it felt good to be alive!

The main beach on this stretch of the river was completely under water but one of the others still had a margin of silt where we saw 20 plus pad marks of an otter criss-crossing and exploring the beach although he didn’t leave any spraint; there was no spraint near the only other signs of otter pad marks by the weir.  On the final beach no Otter tracks but clear prints of what looked like Muntjak given their shape and size.

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The only water birds were the two resident Swans and a Cormorant – no Mallard, Heron or Little Egret to be seen.  There was a shoot in a nearby field and the guns were blasting away which may have discouraged the birdlife but given the dearth of water birds at yesterday’s sites, probably not; it could simply be that although the margins of the river were calm, the main current was so fast and turbulant they had flown off to quieter reaches of the river.

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No sign of our Dippers or Kingfishers on the far stretch, however, we saw two Buzzards, a Cormorant, Pheasant, Wren, Blackbird, Chaffinch, swirling restless flocks of Jackdaws and Rooks as well as 100+ Herring and Lesser-Black-backed gulls in the field.  We also spotted the remains of a Pheasant –  just a splash of feathers below a tree, no bird just wing parts so probably a fox kill – they tend to eat the gut and breast.

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This was one of several trees which have fallen since our last visit, no doubt brought down by the recentstorms, and the second to fall over the river making a good solid land bridge for lots of small creatures to explore new territory.

In spite of so little Otter action, we were very reluctant to leave the river as it felt so wonderful to amble along in the bright sunshine, and decided to walk the boundary of the main meadow to check for possible fungi.

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We saw lots of moss skirting the trunks of the hawthorn trees along the hedgerow, nearly every branch and twig of which were covered in golden yellow, green and grey lichen and too many animal runs through gaps in the hedge to count.  In the corner of the field we came across the main family of Badger setts, again too many to count, we gave up at ten!  By the freshly cleared out earth outside every sett it appeared that the Badgers were also beguiled by the warm sun and had already set to to spring clean their burrows.

Suddenly, to our delight, a flash of movement from the middle of the field which was bathed in sunlight – our usual Brown Hare appeared from his hiding place amongst the grass clumps and tufts and took flight across the field and up the hill towards the wood, running between us as we were some distance apart.  Brown Hares are said to reach speeds of 45 mph when evading predators, well it didn’t look quite that fast but still extraordinarily fast.  It must be spring!

29th December 2019 / Temp: 8 C / Water Level: High

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A horribly cold wind and heavy cloud confirmed the weather forecast – temperature 8 C but feels like 5 and so it did, a drab winter scene of bare trees and sullen skies the very occasional brief periods of pale wintry sun not enough to warm chilled faces and backs so we plodded round our survey sites with a pretty jaundiced eye.  However the dull day was enlivened by a gleam of sunlight highlighting a small pile of a wood mouse’s last feast, half hidden in the hedge.  Peering through the thorny branches we could just make out the holes in the hawthorn seeds where the mice have nibbled through to reach the kernels; the sheer number of abanded seeds shows a hearty high vitamen meal to fend off the winter chill.

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When we reached the moss covered dressed stones of footings of an old building, we spotted signs of a not quite so cuddly rodent – a Brown Rat’s den hole with its distinctive trail of excavated earth running from the entrance.  We presume that, like the badger, the rat must still be inside as they are both mostly nocturnal and there are no tracks leading from the entrance; it could also be that they both kick out more earth to cover their tracks.

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Good to see a sprinkling of fungi under the hedges in the grass and high up in the trees.

We think these little brown jobbies might be Deceiver fungus, their bright tan caps offering a splash of colour.

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One of the boughs of a hawthorn tree was home to several plum colored Jelly Ear fungus which was rather surprising as the tree was so  smothered in ivy, it was difficult to see how anything managed to find enough space to grow.

Our favourite large Willow tree growing on the large gravel beech has acquired what looks like a pink fungus growing on the lichen on on of its boughs.  This could be the lichenicolous fungus Illosporiopsis christiansenii which grows on Physcia tenella and occasionally on Xanthoria parietina but if anyone has a stronger contender, we would love to hear from you.

Interesting to find on one of the moss covered boughs of the same tree an abandoned crayfish claw, possible dropped by a Heron who are known to eat crayfish.

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Finally a fungi which we believe to be the rather lovely Winter Twiglet which always looks like a delicious caramel fudge, its gills so well defined, particularly when like in this photograph when it is curled up sufficiently to display them.

We did hear and see a fair few birds – Chaffinches, Wrens, Blackbirds, parties of Tits, mostly Long-tailed tits and Blue tits, Robins, Wood Pigeons and Pheasants of course and large flocks of Jackdaws and Rooks as well as a group of at least 60 plus Black Headed Gulls.  A pair of Buzzards circled over the trees, a Cormorant flew over and we heard a Green Woodpecker laughing and yaffling so there was some action despite the cold and the time of day.

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It was good to see some purple male Alder catkins adding a splash of colour.  It always astonishes us how early these catkins form and how long it takes before they reach full length in the spring.  A couple of these catkins had scarlet tips but we have been unable to find out why.

15th December 2019 / Temp: 7.5 C / Water Level: Very High

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A brutally cold day, an incessant north-westerly wind, blustery and gusting to such intensity we had difficulty keeping our balance.  The cold combined with flurries of icy rain tossed in our faces made for an invigorating walk, struggling along we assured each other that it was really energising!  The truth is we wanted to escape from election fever  and the day and the river reflected our mood.

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The river was fast and furious, a roiling boiling current, forming swirls and whirlpools as it raced along, the backwash from the tumbling weir rolling a sizeable tree trunk over and over as if it was a light branch, simply by the sheer force of the water.

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It was the highest level we had ever seen, which seems to be the constant refrain this autumn and early winter – whenever we think the river is at its height, it becomes higher, although not surprising given so much rain.

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The beach was reduced to a few feet, all the rest being under water, where so many small empty duck mussel shells lay scattered in groups of four or five close together across the crushed shells and grainy silt.

In a quiet mossy haven, among old stone slabs and the remains of a stone wall, well protected by a line of trees, was a small clump of fungus, possibly Beige Fibrecap, athough the species is unknown to us so we can’t be certain.  Their warm toffee coloured flesh and cream gills were a welcome sight, brightening the wintry day.

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Given the inhospitable weather we were unsurprised to see or hear so few birds, apart from hearing Blackbirds and Chaffinches, the only ones we saw were Robins, Buzzards, Crows and Wood Pigeons with no sign of our Little Egret. But one flash of beauty – zooming upriver with a sharp piping warning a streak of turquoise shot past, the sun highlighting its amazing colour – a single Kingfisher, the first we had seen for what seems months.  The reassuring sight was even more welcome as it was close to a known Kingfisher nest so it appeared he was flourishing despite the months of floods.

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We fought our way across the meadows to reach the protection of the tree and hedge lined boundary, hoping it would shelter us from the worst of the rain and wind.  The canal, which has been cut across the meadows, starting by the weir several fields and half a mile away and running through several more fields until rejoining the main river, here forms a secretive brook between the trees.  The water is slower, like liquid obsidian, so black the reflected clouds and and sunlight gleam between the leaves.  There are often Robins and Wrens here, and in only a couple of months its banks will be covered with golden lesser celendine and primroses, a warming thought on this the coldest of days.

3rd December 2019 / Temp: 8.5 C / Water Level: Med. High

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The brilliant low winter sun set the river and fields on fire and offered welcome warmth on what was a pretty chilly afternoon.  December already, two days into the atronomical first days of winter, illustrated by the empty fields, bare trees and fast flowing river.  Parties of tits dashed through the white stems and the few tattered remains of fluttering white leaves of the tall poplar trees, glowing against the bright blue sky.  Tiny Wrens shot inches above the stream and disappeared into the massed plants beside the stone arched bridge, chaffinches hopped through the trees, Robins and Blackbirds gave song, while shining white gulls flew overhead above a couple of new visitors to this stretch – a pair of Swans sailing majestically upriver, their snow white wings arched (rather bizarrely called busking!) in an aggressive display of defending their territory.

It was good to see so much bird activity as the rest of the river landscape was bereft of any signs of life save for clouds of midges brought to life by the warm sun,  their endless rising and falling like watching a miniature starling winter murmuration, both swarming over the water, along the banks and over the fields .  No Otter spraint or even pad marks at any of the four sites despite the water level having fallen revealing scoured clean beaches strewn with blackened conkers, water sodden acorns, wood mice nibbled empty hazel nut shells, duck mussel and tiny native pea mussel shells of varying sizes, old crayfish claws, empty giant and dwarf pondsnail, ear pondsnail, and garden snail shells, water worn red brick and black stone pebbles, driftwood and the prints of water birds across the mud and sand.

DSCN8406 (2).JPGCow pats of various ages were liberally spattered across the meadows, most scraped by birds or animals and one covered in the common but quite spectacular fungi, cheilymenia fimicola, which is always the first to colonise fresh dung with its bright orange discs encircled with a ring of fine upright standing hair.

On reaching the final site, a small thick muddy beach with its new bank of autumn leaves strewn silt, equally devoid of Otter signs, we were at least rewarded by another pair of Swans chuntering away with their muffled croak, in tone not unlike the Raven’s croak – so not entirely mute.  We also caught sight of a Heron flying down-river and the same solitary Little Egret we often see in the same spot beside the flooded stream at the edge of the field.  It must be a good feeding station – maybe lots of frogs (we once saw what might have been a small Green Frog on the edge of that stream).

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No other water birds – no Moorhen, Coot or Mallard, no Goosander or Cormorant which we occasionally spot and no signs of Otter either when we checked under the orange and white lichen splashed stone bridge.  So we began examining and checking along the cracks and crevices between the slabs and there, as expected, we found lines of hibernating Garden snails, tucked into the shelter of the stones, well above any possible water level, clustered together for protection to see out the cold winter months.  Would that we could do the same – although it would be a shame to miss tramping across the water meadows on such a golden afternoon.

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19th November 2019 / Temp: 4 C / Water Level: High

Bone chillingly cold, thick coating of ice in the cattle trough and even the rain filled animal prints in cow pats are frozen solid, pretty much all of which were raked by an animal or bird searching for insect lavae.  A weak sun trying to penetrate the cloud and at first glance very little signs of life as we trudged along, relieved that the temperature had risen a couple of degrees from earlier in the morning, and slowly adjusting to the cold – we were glad to be out and walking along the river bank.

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When we reached the beach the water raked grass showed that although the water level was full, it had dropped from its previous high and we noticed empty freshwater Faucet snail and Duck mussel shells among the detritus washed up.  It was good to see how clear and clean the river looked after months of murky, sediment full water –  there was a good strong flow and there were no cattle in the meadows alongside the river.

We were intrigued to see a good quantity of white hairs strewn all along two mossy willow branches, caught up in the wood knots and bark.  Stoats moult in autumn and southern Weasels apparently don’t, however, Weasels appear to be more common locally and given the size of the branch it did seem more likely that it was a Weasel rather than a Stoat chasing maybe a bird or just searching for food, particularly given the length of the hairs.  Interesting to learn that Weasels are excellent swimmers and often live along river banks.

There appeared to be lots of birds about flying between the branches, frantically searching for food – mixed parties of tits including Blue Tits and Long-tailed Tits, Chaffinches, challenging Robins, alarm calling Blackbirds, Crows, chattering Jackdaws and Rooks, silent Gulls passing over high up and cooing Wood Pigeons.  At the farthest and quietest end of the field well away from the sound of the Creamery a Little Egret rose, lifting majestically in the air flying languidly across the water meadows, crossing a Cormorant flying in the opposite direction.

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Very little fungus apart from a collection of Field Blewits, Candlesnuff and some Whitewash lichen splashed across some trunks of the trees alongside the small stream.  We were surprised to see that the main beam of one of the bridges over the river was covered in what we thought looked exactly like Leafy Brain, a jelly fungus which we had only ever seen growing on bracket fungus which was growing on wood.  We could easily be mis-identifying this fungus and will investigate further but it does look a pretty good match. [Update: Brian 38 at Project Noah has identified this as Star Jelly Nostoc commune – a species of cyanobacterium and not a fungus at all].

Unfortunately, as with yesterday, no sign of Otter spraint at any of our sites today and no pad marks either, even along the quieter stretches of the river.   Some authorities say that signal crayfish (our Otter’s main diet according to their spraint) keep to the burrows in winter and enter a state of torpor, if this is the case it may not just be the fast flooded river which has been deterring Otters from our sites, it could be lack of food.  It could also be another reason there is less sediment in the water, no signal crayfish foraging and fighting and eroding the banks.

18th November 2019 / Temp: 7.5 – 8.5 C / Water Level: HighDSCN8319 (2).JPG

There was a cold north-easterly wind cutting into our faces so despite the sky being unbroken blue and the sunlight making the river, trees and flooded fields look beautiful, the wind soon penetrated through to our bones so we didn’t linger.

Not that there was very much to linger for.  Four of our six sites showed no signs of Otter at all and of the other two sites, one had a mere three pad marks and the other seven.  No spraint or anal jelly.  No signal crayfish remains or freshwater mussel shells, just the pad marks to show – I came, I saw, and I didn’t stop for lunch!  Very disappointing as it is the second month we have not seen any Otter spraint.  However, in both months the water levels were high and the river fast flowing.

Very little else.  1 Little Egret, a good sized flock of mixed Herring and Lesser Black Back Gulls, a Sparrohawk, at least 23 Mallard, a Tree Creeper plus the usual Wrens, Robins, Magpie, Blackbirds, and a large flock of Jackdaws, Rooks and Crows rising and swirling and settling in the meadows and a Brown Hare racing across the field, before stopping and waiting to see if we intended to move and then racing off again as we continued walking towards it.  On the partially flooded beach where we usually see the most Otter spraint there were clear Roe Deer slots (deer often use this stretch of the river to drink from) but again no Otter spraint or pad marks.

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A narrow reed filled ditch which forms the course of a winterbourne, and filled in summer with water mint,  marsh marigolds and yellow iris has been used for some animal, most likely to have been Red Fox, to kill and eat an unfortunate Mallard.  All that  was left were the orange feet and lots of feathers.

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We passed a chatty fisherman who told us that although he hadn’t seen any Otters for some time, he had caught a lovely view of one last winter and even managed to film it – mainly to prove to his family that there were Otters in the river.  He loved watching the wildlife of the river as much as fishing and talked about the number of Kingfishers there were – his highest count being ten in one afternoon!

We also had a brief chat with the farmer who described having seen what he thought might have been a pair of Greenshank, having first mistaken them for Snipe which he sees periodically, but that these had a white rump.  Did we know what they might have been? We said we couldn’t be sure without looking it up and after doing so thought from his description and the habitat (which includes watercress beds) that they were probably Green Sandpipers.  A wonderfully exciting sighting which we haven’t seen locally but which is included in the Rodden Nature Reserve (which is less than 2 miles away) list of species.

5th November 2019 / Temp: 11.5 C / Water Level: High

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Water levels very high although not over the banks as it was three weeks or so ago, but part of the field was still awash with small lakes as can be seen by the single flowering marsh marigold marooned in the flood water.  The high water together with the fast and furious currents swirling the river downstream probably also accounts for there again being no signs of Otter at any of the sites we visited.DSCN8206 (2).JPG

The good news was seeing a Little Egret, at least one Heron and a Cormorant, the first we have seen since early in the year so possibly a winter migrant.  There were also two Mallard which flew off as we arrived – a pathetic number compared with previous sightings but maybe a sign that numbers might be picking up.

A good number of pheasants, escapees from a nearby shoot, large flocks of mixed Jackdaws and Rooks swirling above the trees, chattering to each other in loud cackling calls, that lovely emotive autumn-winter sound echoing across the water meadows.   Parties of tits in the trees doing their thing – dashing about – ever present, and Blackbirds warning calls from across the river – not a great number of birds but more and more as the season advances.

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The clumps of Alder bracket fungus marching up the trunk of a tree very close to the water’s edge, looking like some crawling monster, exuding amber coloured droplets, is usually a sign of a dying tree. As this particular Alder is standing sentinel with a similar matching tree at the entrance to the footbridge steps, it will be sad to see it go. DSCN8198 (2).JPG

Spikes of young Candlesnuff (Stagshorn) fungus have sprouted from their bright emerald green carpet of moss on a rotting tree stump and most of the branches along the riverbank are coated with lichen, their subtle colours providing some small change of tone from the dull, cloudy and water-logged scene.

A single Field Blewit sat in lonely splendour on the edge of the field, already well nibbled by some hungry squirrel perhaps – noticeable that it has only eaten the top centre of the mushroom, unlike other mushrooms which are always nibbled from the side.

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One compensation for the dull wet autumn is the slow turning of the leaves from sombre dark green of late summer to an explosion of colours, every possible shade of gold and copper, yellow and brown.   The leaves have been particularly spectacular this year, and wen we are ever lucky enough to catch a gleam of sunlight, the trees catch fire and glow.

23rd October 2019 / Temp: 7.5 C / Water Level: High

Mist

Alice Oswald

It amazes me when mist
chloroforms the fields
and wipes out whatever world  exists

and walkers wade through coma
shouting
and close to but curtained from each other

sometimes there’s a second river
lying asleep along the river
where the sun rises
sunk in thought

and my soul gets caught in it
hung by the heels
in water

it amazes me when mist
weeps as it lifts

and a crow
calls down to me in its treetop voice
that there are webs and drips
and actualities up there

and in my fog-self shocked and grey
it startles me to see the sky

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Thick mist, chill air seeping into our bones, boggy underfoot and apart from a Blackbird and a flock of gulls,  no birds, no movement, just a dutiful trudge around our sites to fulfil the second day of our monthly Otter survey.  This is the reverse of yesterday’s autumn morning but also typical – dull, cold and grey.

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Thank goodness for the mosses and the lichen covered branches and trees, they make a vivid splash of life in the dead landscape.  On this branch we found Bristle Moss, Even Scalewort liverwort, and the lichen I love the most, both for its little nodules but most of all for its name – Fanfare of Trumpets which today is garlanded with a tiara of jewelled raindrops.

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A garden full of lichen covered this branch – a veritable mixed border of Common Green Shield,  Yellow Scale and trailing cobweb wrapped Cartilage lichen fighting each other for space.

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Every tree, branch and twig seemed to support a spiders web glistening in the mist.  Most were the work of the sheet weave spiders but although I peered closely into quite a few, I was unable to spot even one small spider guarding its web – probably sensibly keeping warm and dry somewhere close by.

Time for us to follow suit – head home for hot coffee, home-made soup, crusty rolls and a quiet doze in the chair out of the damp chilly day!

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22nd October 2019 / Temp: 11.5 – 14.5 C / Water Level: High

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A gloriously sunny morning, the air crystal clear, the sun warm on our backs and we set off with if not a song in our heart, at least in very good cheer.   When we spotted a Heron and Little Egret amost immediately we felt even happier, water birds having been in short supply just recently.  Catching sight of a Mayfly (possibly Iron Blue) rising from the river was a surprise, as was the Common Darter dragonfly and the Red Admiral butterfly – all no doubt pleased to see the sun.

Twenty plus Mandarin Duck took to the skies as we walked upriver, followed by at least seven Mallard and the 100 plus flock of Herring and the Lesser Black Backed Gulls scattered across the field almost glowed in the sunlight – snow white against the dark green pasture.

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Flocks of finches, Pheasants, Magpies, Wrens, Crows and Wood Pigeons, 50 plus Jackdaws and Rooks circling above the stand of trees, their chatterings and calls echoing across the fields.  A Buzzard appeared on the hunt- so a classic autumn morning – bright sunlight, wet grass and muddy fields; a Dusky slug devouring a mushroom, flocks of larger birds restlessly rising and settling, smaller ones flitting and busying themselves along web-strewn hedgerows, jet black Noon flies, face, wings and feet tipped with gold settling on the cow pats, Common Darter dragonflies hunting low, trees laden with blood-red hawthorn berries, Schiaperelli pink splindle fruit, black sloes, two more Herons and another Little Egret join the scene and then the river – builder-tea brown, fast and furious tossing aside branches and logs as it hurtled downstream – full of teeming life and a haven for so very many creatures – Otter, Water Vole, many species of fish, shrimp, mussel, eel, dragonfly and mayfly nymph, water spider and caddis fly lavae in their stone casing and of course the invasive American Signal Crayfish whose numbers are beginning to reach concerning numbers.   An endlessly fascinating prospect.

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As to our search for Otter spraint, December 2018 was the last time we found no signs of Otter during our monthly survey, for the same reason – partially flooded fields, beaches under water and high water levels.  The levels have dropped slightly since last week but still too high it seems to tempt Otter to visit.  Disappointing but we hope for better sightings next month.

22nd October 2019

We have received a very full and helpful reply from the Environment Agency in response to our concern at the increased sediment and turbidity in the water along our stretch and to our request for a sight of the fish survey which was carried out in August.

Mr Christopher Doyle of the Agency writes:  “We are currently working with partner organisations such as the Bristol Avon Catchment Partnership, Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group (FWAG) and the Bristol Avon Rivers Trust (BART) to identify and tackle problem areas in the catchment, a good example being the Somerset Frome Sediment Pathways Project.”

This website is wide-ranging and informative and we look forward to reading it in more detail.

 http://www.bristolavonriverstrust.org/somerset-frome-sediment-pathways-project/

Survey Date: 28/08/2019
Sub Catchment: Somerset Frome

Chub [Leuciscus cephalus]  21
Dace [Leuciscus leuciscus] 1
Bleak [Alburnus alburnus] 13
Gudgeon [Gobio gobio] 9
Roach [Rutilus rutilus] 11
Rudd [Scardinius erythrophthalmus] 1
Perch [Perca fluviatilis] 4

“Unfortunately, this survey was aborted after one run (we would normally undertake three runs over the same stretch of river to obtain a catch depletion) due to the depth of the water being too great to efficiently and safely electric fish and due to the presence of underwater obstructions, such as fallen tree limbs.”

15th October 2019 / Temp: 16 C / Water Level: High

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Raging torrent, flooded fields, thundering weir and mounds of detritus showing the river overflowed its banks – it all looked pretty dramatic.   However, fortune favours the brave, and we hadn’t walked far before the clouds parted, the temperature rose, and we managed the whole walk under clear blue skies and warm sunshine and even spotted three Red Admiral butterflies which had somehow survived the persistent downpours of the past two or three weeks.

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The sun immediately transformed the landscape, the water sparkled and danced, the Aspens, Hawthorns and Hornbeams caught fire, their leaves fluttering in the breeze, flaunting their scarlet and gold leaves and the grasses glittered with raindrops.  It felt good to be alive, despite trudging through squelchy mud and cow pat pools.  The downside of high water level is the dearth of Otter spraint and finding that most of the beaches were totally under water but the upside is that it gave us the opportunity to see what else is thriving in the river and along the water meadows.

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One lovely discovery the bright sunlight highlighted was the tiny Bark Bonnet mushrooms growing among the bristle moss along a branch of the large willow tree which dominates the gravel beach.  The caps of these mushrooms were no bigger than 5mm, tiny, perfectly formed and so delicate, like the most exquisite egg shell china, calling to mind Edmund de Waal’s paean to white porcelain.   So many different lichens had also found a home and were growing along the same branch, including the Common Green Shield lichen (pale grey when dry and yellow green when wet) and Yellow Scale (Maritime Sunburst) lichen and others which we have as yet been unable to identify.

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They made such a splash of bright colour, perfect and unblemished, standing aloof from the devastation on the beach beneath which was almost entirely under water, the roots clogged with flood detritus – trainers, plastic bottles, broken planks of wood, beer cans, plastic bags in great piles including, rather bizarrely, golf balls – we collected 8!

Exploring the areas of beach which were not underwater, we noticed the first empty freshwater mussel shell we had seen since last winter, lots of crayfish remains, earthworms washed down from the banks, lots of empty garden snail shells but also sunshine yellow and grey grove snails clinging to the stems of plants, presumably to keep clear of the flood water.

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The warm sunshine seems to have brought out a surprising number of bugs, flies and beetles as well as a few wasps.   We liked the Tarnished Plant bug (above) mainly for it’s charming white heart; we offer the name with the caveat that the esteemed Naturespot website warn of identity difficulty with this species of bug as differences between many of them are almost impossible to see without dissection.

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We were amused by the lines of dozens of common flies, sunning themselves on every tree trunk facing the sun, joined on one tree by a Dancing Blue Leaf (or flea) beetle which feed on sallows, great willowherb and purple loosestrife, all of which grow with profusion along the river bank.  Near the top of one trunk, working its achingly slow way towards the canopy we also spotted a tree slug.

Still not that many birds – a number of assertively singing Robins, a small flock of twittering finches, Goldfinches and Greenfinches among them, a Jay, the usual suspects – noisy Jackdaws, Crows, Wood Pigeons and Magpies, a couple of Buzzards circling, totally ignored by a large flock of passing gulls, but we were most pleased to hear a Moorhen and see at least one Heron, either the same bird twice or another bird, the first water birds we have seen for months.

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Lots of fungus, both under a hawthorn hedge (possibly Winter Twiglet as above) on the ground (below), or decorating tree branches some of which, when we have a spare five or six hours, we may attempt to identify!  All in all, the afternoon produced a satisfyingly goodly haul for mid-October.

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19th September 2019 / Temp: 14 C – 20 C / Water Level: Very Low

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The second day of our Otter survey was another gloriously sunny morning, fresh and sparkling, with clear blue skies although our early start meant a sharp autumnal chill in the air.  Disappointingly little to see, no signs of Otter at any of the first three sites, no water birds and few signs of any life at all, so we were pleased to spot the Orange Balsam bush; this is a new species for us and even though the flowers were going over, they still made a vivid splash of colour in what was mostly a mono-green landscape.

As we walked we heard the lovely croak of a Raven, the screech of a young Buzzard and the less welcome squawks of Pheasants from the adjoining fields where they are bred for shooting.  A handful of dragonflies – four Southern Hawker and one Common Darter was the sum of the long walk.   A few Small Whites were the only butterflies but there were dozens of what looked like wool carder bees feeding on a small clump of Himalyan Balsam – a despised invasive plant but from our observation always attracting lots of bees at a time when few other plants are in flower.  A pity the plant is so rampant, quickly smothering nearby native plants until very little else will grow because they are also rather attractive flowers.

Thankfully when we reached the bridge, things began to look up.  We disturbed a Grey Wagtail perched on one of the many stones in this part of the river and barely had he flown off before a Kingfisher exploded past, inches above the water, low and fast with a flash of brilliant blue.  We found two fresh and three recent Otter spraint, as so often on the bridge pier, surrounded by crayfish remains and enjoyed leaning on the bridge watching numerous small pale buff flies rising from the water.  They could have been caddis flies but unfortunately we were too far away to get a positive identification.

Southern Hawker - Becca.jpgSouthern Hawker – copyright Rebecca Muirhead

Even better, as we reached the final site, we saw a Grey Heron lifting slowly and lazily from the river bank where we disturbed his day’s fishing – the first Heron we have seen along this stretch of the river since June, so a very welcome sight.  A surprising number of Dragonflies here, three Southern Hawkers plus two mating, a Brown Hawker and at least four Common Hawkers as well as a couple of Common Blue damselflies.  Crane flies seem to have replaced grasshoppers in the tussocky grass of the water meadow as we walk across and once again, lots of pale mayflies rising from the water.

We sat down to rest on the riverbank, enjoying the quiet peace of the afternoon, feeling the hot sun on our backs contentedly watching the dragonflies’ fast flight up and down the river, sometimes chasing each other or merely resting on the water reeds, while fish plopped in the water creating widening rings, and even noting the slow waves from a dog jumping in and chasing sticks farther downstream.  The sharper sighted of us said idly “Do you suppose that could be Otter spraint” and pointed to two brown bone filled lumps by his feet.  We poked them over to reveal the telltale red colouring  together with white bone fragments and pearls of a Signal crayfish – Otter spraint – what serendipidy!!  And what lovely successful end to the day.

18th September 2019 / Temp: 15.5 – 18 C / Water Level: Very Low

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Striding out to do the monthly otter survey on a beautifully clear September morning – wall to wall blue sky, full sun and just a slight nip in the air to confirm summer is over.  Did I say striding?  A slight exaggeration perhaps, one of us is nearly 82 and still not fully recovered from a severe arthritic flare-up, the other is not that much younger and rather stout so something between a grimly determined lurch and a stout ash-stick assisted stagger might be nearer the mark.  But the wonderful gift of a spell of perfect autumn sunshine makes aches and pains seem trivial and it feels good to be alive.

Otter pad marks and anal jelly at the first site, nothing on the second, but 3 sets of pad marks and recent spraint at the third site plus crayfish remains lifts our spirits still further, heightened still more by catching sight of a Dipper and then 5 Mandarin ducks and 5 Mallard.  So good to see there are some water birds around as we have seen barely any on the downstream stretch of the river for the past three months.

Our last site is our favourite.  So quiet and secluded, surrounded by hawthorn trees thick with scarlet berries, blackthorns with their purple sloes ready for picking and bramble bushes loaded with fat juicy looking blackberries glistening in the sun.  The stony beach is always filled with spraint as indeed it is today, 7 fresh and 6 recent, another sighting of a Dipper and lots of Mayflies rising from the water into the sunlight.

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The water level is so very low at the moment so we can wade around checking on the intriguing small holes in the river bank, the subject of endless speculation (we are not absolutely sure but given the arched entrance and position on the banks, we believe they may well be entrances to crayfish burrows).  Signal Crayfish shelter under rocks and boulders, within tree roots or in cavities within banks and in winter shelter in burrows and enter a state of torpor. These burrows are formed of many inter-connecting tunnels, and can be up to two metres deep.  We also wanted to get a closer look at the liverworts clinging to the banks, none of which are we able to identify – any advice would be warmly welcomed!

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Addendum:  We sent a photograph to Ispot who came back with an identification for two of the three plants.  Evidently the largest plant is a bog-standard Hairy Bittercress; the bright green shiny plant beside it, which we had assumed was a liverwort, has instead been identified as a fern – specifically a gametophyte.  The tiny plants of which form when spores are released from the underside of fern leaves, fall on suitably damp ground and once the gametophytes have grown and are fertilised, a new adult fern will begin to grow.  Great to learn something new and have a mystery solved although unfortunately the dimness of the photograph made identifying the third plant impossible.

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The trailing river moss nearer the beach is coated brown with some sort of sediment, possibly cattle excrement as the cows  enter the river here to drink and inevitably excrete into the river or even, if several recent and current academic studies are able to prove, crayfish burrowing causing fine sediment in the water course and turbidity most affected by fighting crayfish not only burrowing but also foraging.

It’s good to see that the fast flowing water does eventually clean and disperse the sediment and only a matter of 20 metres or so down-stream the river moss is bright green again and appears clean enough to support the lavae so necessary to the Dippers.  Fallen trees and other detritus impedes the flow to such an extent it cannot clear the sediment farther downstream where the water weed remains worryingly thickly coated over a long stretch, despite the help of a functioning weir (the other weir on this stretch is presently completely dry).

There is also a water extraction plant at the point near where the problem starts so it may very well be that the combination of slowed flow, water extraction and cattle excrement as well as other possible pollutants can have led to this situation.  We wonder if this has affected the weeds so much it is depriving the water and fish of oxygen and that is why we have seen so few water birds along that lower stretch of the river.DSCN7778 (4).JPG

Finally, a totally inadequate photograph of Ivy bees exploring a long south-facing sandy bank, about 40 metres long.  Probably no photo could illustrate or properly give an impression of the 1,000 plus bees constantly on the move here.  The farmer who drew them to our attention said that they appeared every year around this time when the Ivy flowers were just forming, and the numbers had just grown and grown over the years as the steep bank formed a border to the field and they were quite undisturbed.  He is a keen bird watcher who often sees Snipe and knows the Kingfisher and Dipper nest sites.  We love to hear him talking about the dozens of Sand Martins which used to nest along a sandy bank close by the river when he was a boy and when he points out to us the line and remains of what had been the canals, leats and workings that were once used to flood the water meadows thereby enriching the spring grass, a system of agricultural improvement dating  back over 500 years.

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Whilst we were chatting, we suddenly noticed that we had brought a passenger up from somewhere along the river – a harvestman clinging to a sleeve of a sweatshirt.  It is one we have never seen before and we were astonished at the sheer length of his legs and intrigued by what looked like claws at the end of its antennae – quite extraordinary!  After searching books and internet once we arrived home we think it might have been a grandly-named Dicranopalpus ramosus agg. which according to Naturespot has spread across Europe from Morocco. They go on to say that as early as 1957, it was reported in Bournemouth in southern England, from where it spread.  It reached Scotland in 2000 and is now quite frequent in Britain.  It does seem striking how many quite commonplace species of plants, insects etc have come to this country over the centuries and are still arriving.  Whether this is due to changes in climate or other explanation we have no idea but it is interesting nonetheless.

13th September 2019 / Temp: 15.5 C / Water Level: Low

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What could be more enjoyable on a fresh, clear September morning when the sun is sparkling off the water and a Grey Wagtail is hopping across the stones, than tramping about exploring the river bed.  Armed with nets, buckets, trays, hand-lens, cameras and notebooks and our trusty FSC Guide, we climbed gingerly down the steep bank and began our search between the large stones and moss covered boulders of the gravely river bed for suitable kick-sweep sites

The river is fast flowing here, gouging troughs and hollows in unexpected places, so we tread with care and eventually take two samples – one from mid-stream where the water is clear and one from a couple of yards out from the bank where lots of small creatures hide among the moss.

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Although the river mid-stream is gin clear, towards the bank it seems to mirror the countryside, worn out by the summer months, and looking as if it could do with a few winter high water weeks to wash everything through.

Both samples pretty much matched the samples we took at the end of May – Signal crayfish (larger), Bullhead, swimming Mayfly nymphs, freshwater Shrimps, Ramshorn snail and cased caddisfly lavae.  No hoglouse or leech but both biting and non-biting midge lavae as well as blackfly lava.

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Our rather amateurish BMWP assessment gave a score in the upper 70s – lower than the May score and giving a water quality of Fair biological quality against the ealier Good.  Bearing in mind that the May score was in the lower end of the Good score, we think that a reasonable supposition is that the river is Fair-Good or Good-Fair biological quality.  Given the local wildlife using the river, Otters, Kingfishers, Dippers, Trout, several species of Mayflies, Dragonflies and Damselflies, but no stoneflies, this is what we would expect.  Of course we need to do the sampling rather more often and for a longer period to get a proper idea and certainly hope, health and agility permitting, to do take more samples in the future.

10th September 2019 / Temp: 18.5C / Water Level: Low

brown hawker.jpgBrown Hawker Dragonfly / copyright – Keith Edwins

Overcast and muggy so a quick check of a couple of Otter sites seemed the best plan as we would be unlikely to see any butterflies or bees in these conditions.

The bridge piers proved again a good source of Otter spraint, as is often the case when water levels are low.  Old, recent and very fresh spraint, the latter red, the scattered remains of signal crayfish on both piers reinforcing evidence of the last meal.  We were unsuccessful at the second site which showed no signs of Otter activity at all, and equally disappointed that the new footpath we checked out didn’t take us to a previously unexplored stretch of river as we had hoped.  However, good to tick it off our list of possibilities.

DSCN7713 (2).JPGTachinid fly – possibly Eriothrix rufomaculata

They were a few plants with some flowers clinging on – gypsywort, creeping thistle, fools watercress, water mint, great bindweed, stitchwort, water forget-me-not, a patch of beautiful striking purple loosestrife and even a few brambles.  One Small White butterfly, a Brown Hawker and two Southern Hawker dragonflies, several Field Grasshoppers, a couple of tachinid flies and a single Crane fly were the only insects to be seen.  A meagre few birds, Buzzard, Magpie, Chaffinch, Jackdaws Rooks and Crows, Pheasants – a single Coot and no other water birds which is a constant cause of concern.

Given the derth of anything of interest, it seemed that this was possibly a good time to follow Jeremy Dagley’s advice in The Guardian newspaper’s Country Diary and look at cow pats which he assures his readers “This dipteran dung world is significant not only for its diversity but for its biomass.  One average-sized cowpat may contain 1,000 insect larvae, and in a summer grazing season one cow’s dung could support a million flies.”  Struggling to take pleasure in the thought of a million flies, we reminded ourselves that flies are excellent pollinators and food for insect eating birds so….DSCN7716.JPG

We drew a blank after checking cow pat after cow pat and saw nothing apart from a few desultory flies, not quite the bonanza we had been hoping for, until as we approached one pat quite close to the hedge edging the field, a small black Rove beetle climbed out of one of the holes and scurried off, far too quickly for identification or a photograph.

We then noticed on the same cow pat what looked like a female Woolf spider with an egg sac tucked under her abdomen.  We had seen lots of the usual small black spiders which seem to teem in grassy meadows and so were not surprised to see the Woolf spider, but it seems a strange time of the year for her to be carrying eggs, we will have to investigate further.  She could of course be carrying spiderlings, which do appear in the autumn – we will have to find out.DSCN7717 (2).JPG

Exciting though an afternoon examining cow pats undoubtedly was (evidently cows are averse to eating the grass close to their dung, so the well-fertised grass which grows uneaten around the pats are a haven for insects) we decided we had had enough entertainment for one day but promised ourselves to look again, at fresh dung, on another occasion, which might prove more rewarding in a search for interesting occupants.

Or maybe not….  quite suddenly other alternatives, hated jobs like sorting out the sock drawer or clearing out the garage began to have an overwhelming appeal!

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28th August 2019:     Frome Angling Association posted the above photograph and the quotation below on their Facebook page:

“The Environment Agency did a fish survey today down The Factory. Unfortunately the trees made it very difficult to do the survey so they couldn’t complete it however they managed to catch a number of huge chub and a lovely perch. The perch in the photo was around 40cm and the chub was over 50cm!!”

The survey report a copy of which the Environmental Agency sent to us showed a catch of 21 Chub, 1 Dace, 13 Bleak, 9 Gudgeon, 11 Roach, 1 Rudd, 4 Perch before the survey was aborted due to the number of fallen trees in the river.

23rd August 2019 / Temp: 21C / Water Level: Low

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There is a magical quality to late afternoons and early evenings at the end of summer – something to do with the angle of the sun over the fields, the freshening of the air and the quiet which seems to descend.   This was certainly the case when, after an exhausting day we went to the river, climbed over the stile, found a shady spot under the trees from which we could see the entire meadow, spread out the picnic rug, fished out our books and collapsed!  The books went unopened as we watched the faint zephyrs, cool and soft, lift the willow branches above us and rustle the dry leaves of the white poplars.

The sky was unbroken blue, the sun warm and the air so clear and fresh, like a glass of cold water on a hot day.  We watched a pair of tree creepers continuously scuttling up and down the thicker branches of the willow, like little mice, so small, before flying to the next tree – repeat.DSCN7544 (3).JPG

A Brown Hawker dragonfly was criss-crossing a small area of the meadow close to a stand of trees backwards and forwards at dizzying speed, inches above the grass, a red dock beetle landed on the rug, a party of tits flittered and flurried through the branches and a small aircraft droned into view, the sun catching its silver wings, a few desultary cabbage whites crossed and re-crossed the field, a crow squawked a greeting as it passed overhead and Wood Pigeons clattered, rose and swooped to the trees on the other side of the river and then flew back again.  Nothing really happened – just a perfect quiet time watching the world go by.

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We watched a fly fisherman in waders climb over the stile, walk over to the river bank beside the best pool and set down his rod before beginning to unpack his gear and then kneeling on the grass to select and carefully tie a fly.  When satisfied, he waded into the centre of the river and began to fish for brown trout.   Meanwhile, back at the fence, another visitor arrived, a Signal Crayfish forager,  climbed over the stile and strode off along the bank to check his traps.  A veritable hive of busy-ness and activity!

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We managed to rouse ourselves from our stupor at last, and also crossed the field and began walking along beside the river, checking the purple loosestrife, himalayan balsam and umbelifers for signs of life while also keeping a careful watch on the water.

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We were amply rewarded for our vigilance, one of us saw our first Brown Argus butterfly pushing for space among the bees, flies, Large Whites and Painted Ladies on the Saracen’s Woundwort and when the other walked on he spotted a pair of Dippers among the stones and rocks on the river bed, less than a mile downriver from our earlier sightings!  They were both bobbing up and down, mimicking Steve Smith the Australian cricketer at the crease, so exciting as although we suspected there might be a pair, we had only ever seen one.  Who knows,perhaps they are raising young.DSCN7569 (4).JPG

Sheer idleness persuaded us to wade gingerly across the river, steadying ourselves with our sticks, rather than the long walk to the stile, impervious to soaking trousers and shoes alike, which enabled us to join an easy footpath on the far bank.   Idleness that is and the hope that the river current would be strong enough to rinse off at least some of the cowpat excrement from one trouser leg and shoe.  Concentration on catching a good shot of the Argus butterfly was necessary – watching where I put my feet might also have been a good idea.  However, although the river didn’t quite manage a good clean, at least it rinsed off the worst.

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Looking up and down the river from the middle was delightful – it looked so clear, riffling over stones and forming placid pools, flat enough to form perfect reflections of the trees and sky.  The final pleasure on arrival at the opposite bank was the discovery of two large water-worn stones close to each other two piles of Otter spraint on each, one set recent the other so fresh the anal jelly was still wet and glistening.  A magnificent final flourish on which to head for home.

Difficult to find a moral but the secret appeared to be a mixture of attentiveness and laziness – which had certainly brought the afternoon’s best rewards.

20th August 2019 / Temp: 19C / Water Level: LowDSCN7538 (2).JPG

The one recent and two fresh spraints on the top of one of the bridge piers, red from Signal crayfish and filled with crayfish calcium pearls were the sole signs of Otter, although we only visited two sites on our afternoon saunter so who knows, the other sites may have been choc-a-bloc.

The weather has been chill, wet and very windy so the welcome sunshine lured us out for a short stroll.  The river meadows look pretty lifeless, apart from the hordes of grasshoppers and white moths, there was little insect life.  The bright splashes of colour came from the plants on the very edge of the river, stately purple loosestrife and floppy comfrey, striking pink great willowherb, pale blue water forget-me-not, deep blue brook lime, pale mauve water mint, white fools watercress, white and pale pink Himalayan balsam, the dull yellow trifid bur marigold and the golden yellow buttercups and tansy, none of which surprisingly appeared to attract any insects.  A large thick mass of bramble however, with its mixture of black, red and green berries and a scattering of flowers, was a hive of activity, bees, wasps and flies buzzing and humming all over the bushes.

iRoDTUHRP1qAug95OiAoVqJWqVBcBjOek-6PX1Qgst8QPljRHSeB29W2ksKRqeHa_NZeHjOPyvqBoQ=w176-h176-n-o.jpgLarge Red Damselfy (male)

We did eventually spot several Banded and a single Beautiful Demoiselle, a Large Red and a couple of Common Blue damselflies, several Brown Hawkers with their beautiful golden-bronze wings, and a Common Darter dragonfly but so few – the abundance of high summer definitely over.  Similarly with the butterflies, a couple of Commas, a Small Tortoiseshell, abundant Large Whites were all we saw.

River Frome, 14.05.2018 010.JPGBeautiful Demoiselle damselfly (female)

We have no idea what has happened to the water birds – one lonely Moorhen investigating the reeds was all we saw, the others are presumably hiding and moulting.  Most noticeable was the absence of Mallard which are usually so evident in good, sometimes huge numbers but also no Heron, Little Egret or Kingfisher, which are frequent along this stretch of the river.

However, we saw lots of tits, mostly Long Tailed, a pair of Buzzard, circling high, high overhead and heard a Raven.  What lifted our spirts more than anything was the sight of twenty or more Swallows, several families weaving, wheeling and zooming over the river, showing off their astonishing aerobatic abilities, feeding up before they start their long journey back to South Africa in the coming weeks.

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Swallows leaving is the signal for the end of summer, emphasised by the fat purple sloes, the trees here always a good source, and a good harvest this year by the looks of them, the reddening hawthorn berries, white snowberries and ripening blackberries.  Thoughts inevitably turn to sloe gin and chutney but we are always reluctant to let go of the exuberant flowers, grasses and insects of summer every year and this year is no exception, the weather never being hot enough for us to long for cool and fresh autumn days.

13th August 2019 / Temp: 18 C / Water Level Medium

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Cooler after rain storms and lows but the sun was warm and the sky blue so walking through the water meadows was very pleasant.  Very little activity and very few flowering plants since haymaking cut down the massed umbellifers which were a great source of insects, but maybe the rain with encourage a second flowering – an extreme Chelsea chop!  A few desultory butterflies, Large White, Meadow Brown and Gateway among them, no sign of ground beetles around the water trough, a drowned moth, a few pond skaters and a common blue damselfly whizzing overhead was the sum of it.

No signs of Otters at any of the four sites and still no water birds along the entire stretch of the river, not even the ubiquitous Mallard, but an Emperor dragonfly darting backwards and forwards over the water above the weir made a striking splash of colour against the fresh bright green leaves of the bur-reed, quite casting the smaller damselflies into the shade.  The Brown Hawker dragonflies may not be so colourful but there were more of them, we spotted 6 during our walk along the river bank, flashing their golden brown wings in the warm sunshine.

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The big beach looked a little woebegone, a cattle-trodden scene of broken plants strewn all the way across, but there were arching branches of purple headed burdock and enough plants on the margins to interest a good number of Banded Demoiselles, Common Blue and Blue-tailed damselflies, chasing each other amongst the reeds, although they were not so plentiful as before the rains.  We found a dead Forest Bug, its red legs catching the eye, probably also a victim of the rains but little else.

Walking beyond the big beach although the sun-warmed grass is alive with meadow grasshoppers, leaping to avoid our footfall and white grass moths, the river becomes more shaded by a band of trees on both banks with an undergrowth of snowberry bushes their berries gleaming in the shadows in which we saw a couple of small creamy-white mushrooms, possibly Ivory Bonnets.  Thick clumps of saracens woundwort interspersed with wild angelica had formed along the bank and the angelica like most umbellifers was covered with insects, hoverflies, icheumon wasps, flies and a few worker bees.  It was here on a clear patch of grass that we found a scatter of woodpigeon feathers, a clear sign of a Sparrowhawk’s recent meal.

We moved on to the final site in the rather desperate hope of Otter activity which was dashed as soon as we arrived.  However the sun was warm, the bank inviting and the quiet peacefulness of the afternoon persuaded us to linger, sit on the grass and watch the minute fishes darting about into the deeper pools in the mud left by an animal’s prints – their own sun-warmed hot tubs.  Sitting on a river bank looking at nothing and everything enlivens an August afternoon.

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A male Southern Hawker dragonfly chose a plant close by to hang on, allowing us the opportunity to admire its jewelled markings; a Red Admiral fluttered down, making a brilliant splash of scarlet in the grass, followed by a stippled brown and orange Comma; a pair of Common Blue damselfies clung to a leaf and each other, mating; one of the many Brown Hawker dragonflies appeared, Blue-tailed and more Common Blue damselflies investigated the waters edge, and a Mason wasp sat on a leaf vying for attention.

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We heard a Green Woodpecker’s call across the meadow, inadvertantly disturbed a large Frog from the ledge below who leapt up and sat between us, and then, out of nowhere, the scintillating blue flash of a Kingfisher heading downriver towards us when it performed a fautless swerve as it veered away, back upstream, giving us a brilliant view of its vivid blue-green turquoise wings.

A perfect end to a lovely summer afternoon by the river.

29th July 2019 / Temp: 23-20 C / Water Level Low

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The purple loosestrife plots the line of the narrow stream, which is otherwise completely obscured by the riot of flowering plants: wild angelica, flowering teasel, creeping thistle, Himalayan balsam, great willowherb, hedge bindweed, watermint, meadowsweet, cow parsley, hogweed, common valerian, welted thistle and a good crop of stinging nettle.  As well as being a stunning sight, they provide a feast not only for the butterflies, Gatekeeper, Small Tortoiseshell, Large White, Small Heath, Meadow Brown and Small Skipper but also for the damselflies, Common Blue, Banded Demoiselle and Beautiful Demoiselle, a couple of Brown Hawker dragonflies and uncountable numbers of bees.  This luxuriant abundance of flowers and insects is heart-warming, just looking at the line lifts the spirits and provides a glowing memory of high summer to carry us through the dark days of autum and winter.  The swallows, possibly as many as a dozen, dive and swirl in the air above us, swooping low, inches over the grass, before flying up to the telegraph wires where they gather, perching and twittering,

As we crossed the field to begin our survey we disturbed a hare, which immediately took off at high speed and was soon lost to sight, hidden in amongst the thick tussocky grass.  We usually see them racing across the adjacent open fields but as these have been recently harvested, he may feel safer in this area of unmown grass despite the house only 50 yards close by.  The dividing hedge bordering this field had attracted a great number of Gatekeepers, both on the leaves and in the grass below, whereas when we reached the field on the other side there were none but lots of Meadow Brown, Small White butterflies, Common Blue and Banded Demoiselle damselflies.  A Heron took off as soon as we appeared as did 2 Lesser Black Backed Gulls.

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Having drawn a blank at the first two sites, we arrived at the third, still showing no sign of Otter, nothing to see but a stately Common Mullein in lonely splendour with a few red soldier beetles examining its flowers while close to the water there was a great mass of Great Willowherb plants in full flower, absolutely smothered, mainly by honey bees.  By now we began to think we were unlucky, that we wouldn’t see anything today, and started the long trudge along the animal worn track, rather weary and very hot to the final site.

Having crawled under the electrict fence, we were so busy watching the large flock of at least 30 Jackdaws and Rooks spread out over the field, rising and falling, forever on the move, that we nearly missed a large quantity of fresh Otter spraint on the path, red-brown and filled with the claws and bones of a recent meal of American Signal crayfish.  A few yards farther on, more spraint, older, dried, deposited neatly in the centre of a large dry cowpat, and farther on, yet more fresh spraint filled with crayfish pearls and bones.  Much heartened, heat and tiredness forgotten, we walked on, startling  2 Swans and about 15 Mallard and then 6 Goosander and a Heron, all scattering upriver or taking to the air at our approach.

We then slowed and slowly approached the backwater stream, moving stealthily, hardly daring to breathe, and then to our delight our care was rewarded, there was the Dipper as we had hoped, standing on a fallen branch in the river, bobbing up and down, looking around him. We watched the bird for some time perfectly enchanted before a slight movement startled it and it flew off.  However, it was enough, we were so pleased to see it for a second time nearly a month after the first, in the same place at the same time of the day, giving us hope that it might be a sign that it is nesting close by.

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Our final workout was a scramble through briars, brambles and hawthorn branches down the short but steep bank to the Otter’s secret beach, not helped by hearing the Raven’s croak and the Buzzard’s mew as he circled overhead, hoping no doubt to find a body or two to lunch on.  This site at least didn’t disappoint; fourteen piles of spraint from recent to glistening fresh deposited on stones and boulders spread across the beach.  Some crayfish remains scattered between the stones and in the river, a couple of discarded river mussel shells.  A shrill whistle and like a bullet from a rifle, an orange and blue-turquoise body shot past, inches above the water, a Kingfisher – what a triumphant end to the day!

28th July 2019 / Temp: 18.5-20 C / Water Level: Low – Medium

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After last week’s record breaking heatwave, the countryside looks exhausted, and the usual slow decline of the plants and flowers of summer has suddenly accelerated leaving bedraggled sun scorched leaved plants, heavy with seed, which we usually associate with late August.  This effect has been exaggerated by the recent haymaking, all the fields having been mowed for silage leaving them shorn of the wild flowers and the long waving grasses which looked so magical, now the fields look like bog standard pasture.

Only a few weeks ago the beach was a jungle of head-height flowering plants where we carefully picked a tentative path, whereas now that the heiffers have been let into the field and trampled their way across to drink, the beach is a wasteland of smashed and broken down plants, apart from a few clumps of fat hen and nettles, and those traps for the unwary, very large cow pats!  However, help is at hand, the next ten days are forecasted to be thunderstorms and heavy rainfall – by our next visit, the fields will be transformed again.

Lots of Banded and Beautiful Demoiselle damselflies, Blue Tailed and Common Blue as well as many Brown Hawker dragonflies which we saw both in the trees and along most sites.  Gatekeepers and Small Whites butterflies predominated but we also saw Red Admiral, Meadow Brown and one Comma whose numbers seem to be down this year.

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Comma – copyright John Hansford

We stood for ages watching a newly emerged dragonfly sitting still on a reed which having discarded its exoskeleton had climbed up the stem awaiting full development.  It was very pale and its wings were still short and not fully formed.  Evidently the whole process of expanding wings and hardening the abdomen lasts between 1 hour for damselflies to 3 hours for dragonflies, so we didn’t wait for the full metamorphosis!

Having seen two Kingfishers at separate sites we were not surprised while chatting to a walker who volunteered with the local wildlife photographer Simon King, to hear that he had seen a Kingfisher nest close by the small tributary where we often heard them.  He also said that Simon King, who left a trout out every night, filmed the frequently visiting Otters on his stretch of the river.   When we reached the next site, we met a visitor new to the area who had seen an Otter at 11.30 the previous morning running along the river bank and sliding into the water!  This seemed jolly unfair as our  search for Otter activity had so far been quite fruitless, although the day was eventually saved when at the last site we did at last see some recent spraint.

10th July 2019 / Temp: 22 C / Water Level: Low

DSCN7222 (3).JPGPond Skaters in the cattle trough

Although warm it was cloudy which made the air extremely humid.  We were amused to see a number of pond skaters skittering around on the pollen coated water in the cattle trough – accompanied by one solitary black insect – a scavenging water beetle? – who knows!

Lots of damselflies – Azure, Beautiful Demoiselle, Blue tail, Banded Demoiselle, Common Blue and a single pair of Brown Hawker dragonflies.  Several butterflies, mostly Meadow Brown, but also Large White, Ringlet and Painted Lady; we also caught a brief glimpse of a beautiful Scarlet Tiger moth which always catches the eye.   A few ladybirds but strangely only a couple of bees and no hoverflies during our entire walk despite masses of hedge bedstraw and brambles in full flower.  Presumably the cloudy conditions did not suit.  The insect crawling over almost every flower, often two and three on one flower head, was the Common Red Soldier beetle – they were everywhere!

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The meadow grasses were thickly coated with seeds – how quick from flower to seed it has seemed this year.  The cattle have not been let into the fields so the grasses are incredibly tall, lush and tussocky, and by not crossing the gravel beach and crushing the plants they have grown into a veritable jungle, head and shoulder high with umbelifers, purple loosestrife, great willow herb, fat hen, Himalayan balsam, hemlock, thistles and stinging nettles stinging and scratching our arms as we picked a careful path along the beach – machetes are probably called for!

Lots of damselflies along the reed edge and over the water, particularly the banded demoiselles and the blues but no sign of Otter spraint, Mallard, Kingfishers or Pied Wagtails although we did disturb a family group of nine Goosander females with their chestnut heads and watched a nosiy Sparrowhawk, shrieking loudly as he circled a clump of trees before settling on a telegraph wire for a while before flying off.

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We checked the piers under the bridge before leaving and on one side there were the scattered remains of several meals – crayfish claws and lots of legs and pearls among the dried flotsam and debris of recent floods and on the other side copious amounts of spraint, half a dozen separate piles, both fresh and recent.   Always heartening to see signs of Otter activity even if we don’t see the Otters!

28th June 2019 / Temp: 23-27 C / Water Level: Low

Lullington Jun 2019 085.jpgLittle Egret on the Weir c. Rebecca Muirhead

From the moment we climbed over the stile to be met by the intoxicating scent of lime tree flowers, the afternoon shouted summer had arrived at last.  As we walked across the water meadow we saw a Heron rising from the bank and flap off over the trees, a Little Egret posing coolly on the weir, Red Admirals, Peacocks and Meadow Brown butterflies fluttering around our heads and we even spotted a shy Silver Y moth flying on and on as we ran after it, trying unsuccessfully to capture a photograph before it disappeared, hiding in the long grass.

The wind dropped, the sky cleared, it was extremely hot and as we reached the river a Kingfisher flashed by – this was definitely going to be a day to remember.  And so it was.  All along the river’s reed and meadow-sweet edged banks were dozens upon dozens of damselflies!  Blue-tailed, Common Blue, Large Red, Banded Demoiselle, Beautiful Demoiselle and Azure damselflies chasing, ovipositing, mating and just dashing about, and we even caught sight of a female Broad-bodied Chaser flashing her brilliant gold body as she disappeared upstream – our first dragonfly of the season.  These are the sights we had been expecting and hoping for for weeks – and here it is – summer.

Lullington Jun 2019 031 (2).jpgCommon Blue damselflies mating c. Rebecca Muirhead

The muddy pond-like ditch in the corner of the field was covered with a carpet so thick with water speedwell, brook lime, water forget-me-not and watercress that hardly an inch of clear water was visible but those small spaces had more than their fair share of pond skaters buzzing around.

Along the river edge fully opened yellow water lilies and their great flat platelike pads made useful resting places for damselflies and the unfortunate few of the many shoals of tiny silvery minnows which when leaping out of the water landed on the pads by mistake before frantically manoevering themselves back into the water.  We heard a Moorhen’s warning squawk but he was well hidden unlike the noisy, clattering Wood Pigeons and the beautiful mewing Buzzard wheeling slowly high above us.

Lullington Jun 2019 003.jpgLarge Red damselfly c. Rebecca Muirhead

It was good to remember the warmth of the sun and feast of insects as the survey earlier in the day was a duplicate of the day before – strong blustery north-easterly winds and high milky cloud often obscuring the sun.  That particular stretch of the river has fewer trees which expose the area to the full force of the wind so we saw little of interest – a few damselflies, no butterflies and no signs of Otter.  But we soon approached the quieter stretch protected by a thick hedge and were relieved to see a Heron lifting from the water with a few leisurely flaps of his huge wings, and a couple of Swans, 8 or 9 Mallard and 4 Mandarin Ducks skittering away from us upriver.  The river is lined by a dense impenetrable hedge of bramble bushes covered with white and pink flowers, each of which seemed to have a bee burying its nose in the centre, some of whom managing to get more pollen on their faces than nectar on their tongues!

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Lots more damselflies here, Common Blue, Banded Demoiselles and Beautiful Demoiselles, Blackbirds singing, Jackdaws calling and Swallows swooping down over the meadow.  One recent spraint and one old was the sum total of Otter activity on the beach; the cows had been moved on to another field which made our search easier but they had left their calling cards splattered across the beach, their hoof prints churned deep in the soft mud and this together with the Swan and Goose excrement may not have been an attractive sight for the Otters.  But beyond the beach were more yellow water lillies with clumps of reed grasses and a few damselflies so the defiled beach was soon forgotten.

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Crossing into the next field we found it hadn’t been either harvested or grazed by the cattle so wading through the long grass along to the survey site was hard work.  We have been used to following the well-worn Badger run but the path seemed to have mysteriously disappeared leaving long, thick lush growth of shin deep tussocky grasses to trudge through.  The sound of the families of Rooks swooping across the field and around their rookery with cheerful kaas and calls cheered us on our way as did the sight of more Mandarin ducks and Mallard and another couple of Swans – very good to see after the lack of water birds on all the sites yesterday.

The top beach was idyllic as always.  The water here rushing, rippling and splashing over stones and boulders, gin clear and cool beneath the overhanging willows – a perfect spot for Dippers and there it was, the very first Dipper we had seen on this stretch of the river.  Such an exciting sighting – an absolute delight and further proof of what we had always suspected, the water must be pretty clean.

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The top of the bank was covered in scarlet poppies making a lovely splash of colour to admire as we clambered up and down the steep slope to the beach trying with some difficulty to avoid all the meadow and field grasshoppers, the tussocks of hot grass seemed full of them.  DSCN7116 (2).JPG

The undergrowth beneath the hawthorn thicket along the water’s edge was a wonderful tangle of flowering bramble, red campion, hedge mustard, dog rose, elderflower and hedge woundwort and we spotted a Large Skipper butterfly vivid against the dark bramble leaves, a Marbled White and a couple of Meadow Brown butterflies as well as a Blue Shield Bug and several Nursery Web spider tents in the long grass, one with the grey female crouching on guard outside and the spiderlings in a close huddle ball inside.DSCN7092 (2).JPG

Scrambling through the small gap between the hawthorn branches and those trip wires for the unwary, skeins of bramble branches trailing in every direction, we eventually made it to the second, stony beach where we found copious amounts of Otter spraint, both fresh and recent, together with crayfish remains and crayfish pearls.  It feels a very secretive place, quiet and for the most part unexplored except for the wildlife, a total haven out of time.  A Kingfisher flashed by while we were exploring the beach and from the trees lining the banks there came the cheery twitter of small birds and the fluid notes of a Blackbird, a wonderful counterpoint to the splashing sounds of the river rippling over stones beside us.  A perfect spot for messin’ about on the river.

27th June 2019 / Temp: 19 C / Water Level: Low

DSCN7084 (2).JPGIcheumon Wasp (sarcitorius) female

Strange kind of weather – clear blue skies, wall to wall brilliant sunshine but a stiff north-easterly wind, surprisingly chill, created havoc with the tossing branches and swaying reeds.   The wind may have accounted for the almost complete absence of butterflies – apart from a couple of Meadow Browns we saw none at all.  When I look back to the same week last year, the meadows and riverside were full of butterflies feeding on the banks of cow parsley, common hogweed and swathes of red campion, ox-eye daisies, tufted vetch and massed grasses and reeds in flower.  All of the plants are there, thriving, making that wonderful display of rioting flowering growth which is the glory of June but the butterflies are strangely absent.  However, on the thick clumps of tall stinging nettles edging the water, masses of black, furry writhing Peacock butterfly caterpillars cover every inch of every leaf so – good times should be on the way.

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At least there were Banded and Beautiful Demoiselles and a few Common Blue Damselflies after the complete dearth during our last visit, but nowhere near the usual numbers we expect to see at this time of the year.  One solitary Mallard was the only waterbird, no Heron, Little Egrets, Canada Geese, Cormorants or Mandarin Ducks and the only other birds were Magpies, Jackdaws, Whitethroats, Wrens, Song Thrush, Robin and Blackbird – no raptors, no tits – a warning peep and the all too brief sight of two Kingfishers flashing past but no sign of the resident Pied Wagtails.

What there were in extraordinary numbers were the bees – Tree Bumblebees, Common Carder bees, Honey bees, Buff-tailed bees, several species of Icheumon wasps, Thick-legged flower beetles, Ladybirds, a Caddisfly and a beautiful Large Yellow Underwing moth swarming over the umbellifers, the newly opened Field roses and the Bramble flowers.

We can only assume that the unseasonally cold, wet weather of the past month or maybe the strong wind, has played havoc with the summer butterflies and dragonflies.  Although we haven’t seen the floods experienced by large swathes of the north of England, we have have had weeks of torrential rain and thunder storms which the smaller, more delicate species have simply may have been unable to withstand.

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No signs of fresh Otter activity on three of our four sites and only two recent spraint and pad marks and no fresh spraint at the other when again, in the same month last year there were copious amounts of fresh spraint everywhere.  Strange times – we blame Brexit!

14th June 2019 / Temp: 18 C / Water Level: HighDSCN6947 (3).JPG

Overcast with sunny intervals, the stiff breeze tossing the branches of the willows, umbellifers and grasses, forcing the bees and insects to cling firmly and driving away the birds and butterflies (apart from one Common Blue) but thankfully dry after weeks of torrential rain.   A few brave damselflies risked the wind, but only half a dozen Beautiful Demoiselles and four Common Blues and no Banded Demoiselles at all.  Given that there had been uncountable numbers over the river and beach only a few weeks ago, it was astonishing that they had all simply disappeared.  Hoping to see flying insects, we were constantly distracted by white willow seeds which the wind played with, drawing the eye to a small scrap of fluff shooting past, which proved disappointingly to be yet another willow seed.

DSCN6963 (3).JPGone of the flower bordered small streams feeding the river

Ladybirds and fat Bumble bees everywhere, including White-tailed bees, new sightings for us, a Dark-edged Beefly which we thought very late, but few honey bees.  On Colliers Way where we walked recently it was the opposite, every other bee being a honey bee.  A scattering of beetles, a Nettle weevil, a Common Red Soldier beetle (which we as children always called blood suckers) lots of Thick-legged Flower beetles and a small black shiny beetle which we think may well be an Imported Willow-leaf beetle – a rather self-important name for such an insignificant insect!  We sat on the bank overlooking the beach while the wind thrashed the plants, whipped the water along the river played around our heads and filled our lungs with fresh chilled air. A tiny Digger wasp landed first on a nearby leaf and then moved to my husband’s trouser leg where he settled comfortably, out of the wind but basking in the sudden burst of sunshine. He was still there when we moved off and stayed until, as he seemed reluctant to leave us, I lifted and flicked him with a pen into the flower filled meadow edge.

The river was in full spate, fast and choppy and mud coloured, in a mad dash to get somewhere, but too deep and muddy to attract Kingfishers and we didn’t see a single one all afternoon.  In fact there was an almost complete dearth of any birds at all, the odd Blackbird, Wood Pigeon and Whitethroat but no water birds, not even a Mallard, which must be a first.  In the midst of all this winged desert, we were really pleased to see a good quantity of fresh Otter spraint on the beach, which since the cattle have yet to be let loose onto the meadow, is now almost completely covered with a thick forest of shoulder high umbellifers, reeds, red campion, stinging nettles and hedge mustard, surrounding the very old gnarled willow, so at least the Otters haven’t disappeared!

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On the way back we spotted a couple of white mushrooms, a surprising sight for mid-June, which we think may well have been a St George’s mushroom given the locality but we weren’t entirely sure.  Almost all of the flowering plants matched the list of a week ago, apart from the newly opening Water Figwort among the tangle along the stream, Snowberry, Prickly sow-thistle and Creeping thistle; the Spear thistle although well-grown showed no signs of coming into flower.

1st June 2019 / Temp: 24C / Water Level: Very Low

DSCN6862 (2).JPGSoldier Beetle

A very hot day but by the time we reached the river late afternoon, the sky had become hazy and the wind fresher so it was cool but the river meadows were still bathed in soft sunlight.   The birds were mostly silent, very little action on the river (although we were lucky enough to see the Kingfisher flashing upriver and whizzing back.  We spotted recent Otter spraint on the stoney beach where the umbellifers were in full flower so the air next to the water was filled with damselflies, beetles, bees and flies.  We caught sight of a black legged Soldier beetle (probably Cantharis fusca) feeding on a Hogweed flowerhead who seemed completely oblivious to the Ashy Mining bee sharing the same flower.  Common Hogweed flowers are always a tremendous hunting ground for insects, they always seem to have some beetle or fly feeding on them  – no wonder they are rated in the top 10 nectar producing plants in the UK.

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Lots of ladybirds around including this pair of 7-spot sharing a dock plant with a yellow and black 14-spot which should have been better named, the markings look like exuberant paint splashes by abstract expressionists!DSCN6836 (2).JPG  DSCN6846 (2).JPG

Most of the summer damselflies had arrived, both uncountable numbers of Banded and and good few Beautiful Demoiselles,  Common Blue, Blue Tailed and White Legged.  Every year the immature damselflies of both the Common Blue and the White Legged damselflies catch me out as I get over-excited thinking I have identified another species, only to find on my bible, The British Dragonfly Society species and identification website British Dragonfly Society that the small buff coloured damselflies and the small pale damselflies with black markings are in fact immature females and even males of the Common Blue or White Legged as the rather fuzzy out of focus photographs here show.

We spotted two Common Cockchafers (Maybug), lots of ungainly Crane flies floundering around in the long grass, a fat Carder bee on the hunt and several Rose chafers arriving in time for the Dog roses which were flowering in profusion in spectacular cascades of pale pink blooms tangled among branches and winding through the hedges.  The Ox-eye daisies have also made their appearance, lining the meadow, and as we walked the strong scent of the newly emerging elderflowers filled the air.

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Although there were only a couple of butterflies about, an Orange Tip and a Green Veined White, (it is the tail-end for many spring-flying broods, and too early for late summer butterflies) in every other way it truly looked and felt like the Gregorian calendar tell us it is, the first day of summer!

25th May 2019 / Water Level: LowMay_2019 055 (3).jpgA juvenile Signal Crayfish – less than 3cm long

What can be more enjoyable for energetic small boys, their indulgent Dad, their Aunt, photographer extraordinaire who is always ready with a steadying arm, their loving Grandpa and Grandma, than messin’ about in the river!

We all  clambered down the steep bank clutching dipping nets, trays, buckets, linen magnifiers, sunhats, notebooks, cameras, wellington boots, not to mention all the paraphernelia which always seems to accompany outings with children, to the boulder strewn river bed, where fortunately the water was very low, to kick-sample the river quality.

At least that was the idea, but of course it quickly became an adventurous scramble over hazardous rocks and sudden deep pools, with shrieks of delight or fear echoing back from trees, tall grasses and umbellifers and the walled sides of the bridge as a child found something exciting.  Maybe crayfish remains in the shallows, or spotting a fish swimming over their boots or finding Otter spraint on a stone or fat river snails clinging to the river weed, or perhaps a broken pearlized shell of a river mussel – gleaming in the water –  all the exciting treasures usually found on a river bed.

Exciting finds included a White Ramshorn snail shell, seeing small black leeches attached to a stone, waving in the water, rather gruesome but interesting nevertheless but what we found in the greatest profusion were an extraordinary number of mayfly nymphs (including the Yellow May in our tray) and nymph exoskeletons, drifting on the current, abandoned in the river when the Mayflies moult – they are everywhere.

May_2019 015.jpgYellow May (Heptagenia sulphurea) dun nymph – copyright Rebecca Muirhead

A huge yell, lots of splashings, excited chatter, roars of triumph and the result?  The boys have caught a good sized Signal crayfish which they carry carefully but with great triumph over to the tray filled with river water, weeds and a scattering of gravel where they gently ease him out and stare with awe-struck delight.  The seven year old immediately spots a problem so Dad moves the tray into the shade so he won’t get too hot while they crouch down and examine every inch of their catch while telling us of fishing for crayfish in the Mells River, a feeder stream upriver, by dangling raw bacon tied to thin rope on the end of wooden sticks – a fail-safe method where they catch dozens.

We later found a tiny crayfish, not even 3 cm in length, and later still an even smaller one.  In fact it soon seemed that crayfish and mayflies made almost the entire contents of the river!  However, as the eggs (between 200-400) hatch in May and the juveniles cling to their mothers for 8 or 9 days or so, and then spend 3 or 4 days exploring and returning to mum before becoming independent, it is the time of year we should see so many crayfish.  Even if a lot get eaten with each female crayfish producing so many eggs, no wonder this particular stretch of river is full of them.

After a very happy afternoon exploring the river, a tired party emptied buckets and trays gently into the river, collected their belongings and headed home where the seven year old wrote an account of the afternoon with special mention to crayfish and his “tasty snack” of macaroon biscuits for tea.

22nd May 2019 / Temp: 18 C / Water Level: Low

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Our second Otter survey day revealed four fresh and two recent piles of Otter spraint on a muddy stretch of beach on one area and one fresh spraint, one recent, a pad mark and two couches together with copious amounts of crayfish remains at another area of the first of our sites, all of which raised our spirits considerably!

No signs at the next site but when walking across the water meadow we almost fell over a Guinea Fowl standing firm allowing all of her tiny chicks to scuttle off and disappear in the long grass while three or four Swallows chased and caught insects above us.  Yellow rock roses nestled at the feet of the meadow ant hills and several beetles, including the red cardinal, busied themselves amongst the plants.  We also caught sight of a small insignificant looking damselfly which we later identified as the very common Blue-tailed damselfly which however common was new to us.

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What is it with cows and heiffers?  We walked quietly, slowly, keeping to the edge of the field, but of course they wanted to come up and say hello – polite of course but not totally welcome as black and white Friesian cows are all rather large, lumbering along with their milk swollen udders swinging, so what with navigating around the cows and the young heiffers and avoiding their fresh dung-fly infested cow pats liberally scattered across the field, our passage was slow and watchful.  At least 8 Mandarin Ducks and 6 Mallard with young took exception to our arrival at the beach and of course three cows chose that moment to push in front of us to get to the river to drink so the inspection was hurried and brief – time to clock three recent and some old spraint before we made our way to the next site, shooing more and more cows and heiffers before us as we did so.

A flock of ten batchelor Mandarin ducks and four Mallard flew off as we arrived at the last site.  The beach was filled with cattle and when they moved off, they had so churned and splattered the soft mud that any spraint would have been obliterated.  We were then obliged to scramble through the hedge, ripping our hands and arms on the brambles and hawthorns, dripping blood spatters over our notebook as we peered at the pebbles and stones searching for spraint while the cows stood knee deep in the river beside us watching our every move while excreting and urinating copious amounts of effluent into the river.  Impossible not to feel sorry for any small creature in the river bed beneath or the Kingfisher flashing by with a warning peep.  However, our endeavours were rewarded by lots of Otter spraint, four fresh and five recent so the cattle have not driven off the Otters from their favourite beach.

21st May 2019 / Temp: 18-20 C / Water Level: Low

DSCN6746 (3).JPG   DSCN6748 (3).JPG(Sub-imago?) Green Drake (ephemera danica) Mayfly

A green drake mayfly conveniently landed on my jacket which made it easier to take a snap.  The most common mayfly on unpolluted rivers and streams and certainly the one we see most often.  There were uncountable numbers rising from the river as we checked the banks and stones for otter spraint and we only saw 2 or 3 drake mackerels yo yo dancing above the bank, possibly too early in the day to see the swarms of previous years.

We found fresh and recent otter spraint at two of day’s set of four sites, nine on the large stones exposed by the low water level under the bridge where we shared the river shallows with male and female beautiful demoiselle damselflies, female orange tips, peacocks and speckled wood butterflies fluttering amongst the flowers and grasses while listening to the beautiful tunes of the Blackbird and Song Thrush.  None on the next site but this stretch of the river bank is thick with wild flowers at this time of the year, stitchwort, shepherds purse, crosswort, dove’s foot cranesbill, scentless mayweed, ground ivy, hope trefoil, herb robert, red campion, buttercups, bush vetch, birds eye speedwell as well as all the umbelifers.  The Norway maple and the Hawthorn trees are  in full blossom, the latter filling the air with its not altogether pleasant scent.

DSCN6781 (2).JPG (Male imago?) Drake Mackerel (ephemera vulgata) Mayfly

A pair of Mallard and their young scooted off when we reached the beach, which was a wonderful tangle of plants and flowers, umbelifers and butterburr, common and white comfrey, wintercress and red campion, water forget-me-not and brooklime keeping their feet wet at the waters edge and the wonderfully longed for arrival of the common blue and the banded demoiselles in number, both male and female, joining the earlier beautiful demoiselles above the water, ovipositing in the water crowfoot, or chasing each other among the plants.  A vivid red cockchafer joined the usual ungainly crane flies and the whole time mayfly after mayfly lifted from the water, the usual green drakes but also much smaller, pale winged mayflies, possibly fisherman’s curse (caenis horaria) but not ones we have been able to definitely identify.

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We chatted to a  fly fisherman, newly arrived and asking whether we had spotted any brown trout; we hadn’t so remarking that he was probably too early, he was happy to while away some time discussing the river (which he said was surprisingly clean so relatively close downstream to a town) and the quiet enjoyment of an afternoon’s fishing while the cares and stresses of every day life fell away.  We exchanged news of birds and mayflies spotted, he had seen a pair of Mandarin ducks with 6 young, and a Wren feeding on mayflies, something we had never witnessed although we have seen Heron catching and feeding on dragonflies, before he decided to walk farther downstream before trying his luck once again.

The yaffle of a Green Woodpecker, the cheerful song of Whitethroats and Chaffinches, the mew of a circling Buzzard being mobbed by three crows and the screech of a Magpie as well as calling jackdaws and rooks accompanied our saunter back.  The harvesters had been out haymaking, leaving long piles of cut grass snaking across the fields, so walking was considerably easier than wading through the long grasses of the past two or three weeks.

21st May 2019DSCN6382 (2).JPG

We have received an acknowledgement from Buglife on our reported sighting of a Black Oil beetle:

” What a fantastic find!  Oil beetle numbers have declined in the UK, and this is linked to the loss of our wild bees and wildflowers.  We are working with landowners to better manage our countryside for both oil beetle and the wild bees upon which they rely.  Every record is important and helps us understand the current distributions of these species of oil beetles. You can submit your future records to southwest@buglife.org.uk  along with a picture and location.”

Good to have confirmation that the wildflowers and wild bees on our stretch of the River Frome are supporting a number of insects which are declining elsewhere.  It will be great if our followers/readers pass on their sightings as well.

Other species on the UK Biodiversity Action Plan list (meaning urgent work needs to be done to conserve them and their habitats) on this stretch of river include: Otter, Depressed River Mussel, Brown Trout, Hedgehog, Brown Hare, Harvest Mouse, Garden Tiger Moth, Yellowhammer, Song Thrush.

15th May 2019 / Temp: 19 C

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Yet another day of brilliant sunshine, deep blue skies with a welcome cool breeze to freshen the air.  The water meadows were looking stunning, filled with golden yellow buttercups, bird’s eye speedwell, crosswort, shepherd’s purse, bush vetch and stitchwort while cow parsley, winter cress, red campion, brook lime, water forget me not and common comfrey swamped the river’s edge and almost filled the beaches.

Large white, Green Veined and Peacock butterflies fluttered over the tall grasses, joined by the occasional Beautiful Demoiselle damselfly, both male and female on the wing with their emerald bodies and copper wings, and insects everywhere, on the flowers, stones, leaves and in the air.  We spotted both Red Headed Cardinal beetles, two mating Green Dock beetles who had left little surviving of the dock leaf they had champed through, and crane flies everywhere, including what looked by its colour the orange-bodied tipula fascipennis crane fly.

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The water level in the river was low revealing bleached stones in the shallows beneath the bridge where we found two fresh and two recent spraint as well as a good number of American signal crayfish remains scattered around;  we also found signs of Otter at the beach site, one fresh and one recent spraint so it was heartening to see a good showing of active Otters around and about our stretch of the river.

We arrived at the river in time to see a pair of Mandarin ducks and two young scooting off downriver away from us while a family of Mallard flew off in the opposite direction.  We sat on the bank above the beach, unpacked and ate our picnic while enjoying the spectacular show being staged by a pair of Pied Wagtails skimming backwards and forwards, wings fluttering, just above the surface of the river, hoovering up the countless dancing midges and even catching the emerging mayflies mid flight.  It does seem rather unfortunate that having spent sometimes up to two years under water and only emerging to mate, mayflies should be caught and eaten before they have the chance to procreate.  If the Pied Wagtails had young, which seemed very likely as they constantly flew up to the roof of an adjoining building, they would be grateful for a delicious mayfly.   The Pied Wagtails, a Jay flying past, showing off its white rump, a sharp high pitched cry and flash of turquoise announcing a Kingfisher shooting upstream almost before we caught sight of him set the spirit of the afternoon – unbelievably beautiful, quiet and serene but with enough action to keep us alert.

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We chatted to a local fisherman and his wife, exchanging news of what has been happening along the river.  He said that he loved watching the shoals of chub recently spawning at the foot of the weir, an uncountable number of fish roiling and furiously splashing around.  They also mentioned that the white pheasant is evidently still in the adjoining field, so his escape from the shoot seems to have held good.

As we wandered back, following an animal track through the long, lush thick grasses of the meadow, white fluffy cotton-wool like seeds of the poplar trees blew in the cool breeze and drifted around our heads like light snowflakes while the Blackbirds, Wrens and Chaffinches’ song rose up from the hedgerows, clear and loud and lyrical in the fresh clear air.

10th May 2019 / Temp: 13 C

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A mixture of sunshine and cloud with a cool gentle breeze, the sun, when it appeared,  hot on our backs as we ambled along the river bank.  We checked our survey sites but found no signs of Otter at any of them.  However, the river level was pretty high, and by the signs on the beach had been considerably higher after days of heavy rain so if there had been spraint, it would have been washed away.  Surprisingly, when I walked over to check out the area around the cattle trough where we had seen the black oil beetle,  I could see large cracks and fissures in the dry hard sand coloured ground so it was easy to spot a number of black spiders scattering and running away from my boots, some of which were noticeably females carrying egg sacs.

A fair number of birds including Little Egret, Mandarin Duck, Moorhen and Mallard on and around the water and although we didn’t spot a Kingfisher, we heard Chiff Chaffs, and a couple of Song Thrushes, a Greater Spotted Woodpecker, Blackbird and a Magpie and saw the lovely colourful Goldfinch, Blue Tits, Great Tits, a Pied Wagtail as well as Jackdaws and two Buzzards wheeling overhead.

The first damselflies of the season, all Beautiful Demoiselles both male and female, came dancing and flitting down the river examining the edge plants, several Orange Tip butterflies, a Green Veined White and a Peacock, the usual mass of Craneflies rising from the grass as we walk and a tiny bright blue beetle sitting on a stinging nettle leaf which turned out to be a Green Nettle Weevil – a new species for us.

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The hot sun tempted us to sit on the bank and listen to the birdsong, watch the damselfies and the hundreds upon hundreds of black midges swarming inches above the water, dipping to drink so attracting the fish rising, pools within pools forming on the surface; deep quiet reigns disturbed only by the occasional sharp squawk of a Moorhen and the full throated song from the birds all around us.  A perfectly wonderfully calm way to spend a May afternoon.

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The number of plants in flower, scattered across the water meadow and clustered along the river banks are building towards the peak flowering season: stitchwort, chickweed, red campion, buttercup, dove’s foot cranesbill, ground ivy, dandelion, crosswort, tufted vetch, bird’s eye speedwell, cow parsley, scentless mayweed, ramsons, red deadnettle, white comfrey, common comfrey, white deadnettle, lady’s smock, shepherd’s purse, hedge mustard, wild cabbage and the meadow grasses, tall now as the cows have yet to come to pasture, and already flowering and seeding.

28th April 2019 / Temp: 9.5 -12 C

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Gloomy, overcast skies, the wind swinging around to the north, it felt a lot colder but thankfully the gusts were not nearly as fierce as yesterday.  So dull was the day it was good to see a common carder bumble-bee feeding on the ground ivy reminding us that it was the end of April and not mid-winter.

We found one fresh spraint at our first site which raised our spirits but no signs at all at our next four sites which made us feel a bit downcast.  What was astonishing was that the pebbly beach where yesterday we found extraordinarily copious amounts of spraint was totally empty of any new spraint overnight.  Fortunately the eight piles of fresh spraint at the last beach made the day worthwhile – all of them red all of them choc-full of crushed American signal crayfish legs and shells.

DSCN6577 (2).JPGA rather bedraggled looking  St Mark’s fly had settled on the thick grass of the water meadow and seemed unwilling to move.  No doubt it has been battered from yesterday’s gale.  Although the hawthorns were covered in buds, they remained tight shut, waiting for warm sunshine to open them up so we’ve no idea what the fly is feeding on.

The water level was fairly low, still no sign of the Swans, however we did set up the Little Egret, a few Mallard and 24 Mandarin Duck – a Kingfisher flashed down-river, lots of Tits, Blackbirds and Wrens were singing very loudly and at last a Heron not seen for some time rose slowly and few away over the trees.  Two new nests have been added to the single nest high up in the tall tree but what we had thought was a crow’s nest turns out to be the beginning of a rookery.  What a racket the rooks make as we walk along!

As we neared the farmhouse we came across a Guinea Fowl strutting his stuff, and admired the 8 or 9 white Doves posing on the red tiled roof of the nearby barn but what cheered us most was catching sight of four Swallows putting on an impressive aerial display above the farmhouse.  It is April!

27th April 2019 / Temp. 8.5C

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Giant Hogweed growing on the beach

It was rather unfortunate that the first day of our annual Somerset Otter Group 2-day survey should fall on a day when 82 mph gale force winds were blowing although not, we hasten to add, along our stretch of the river, although the wind was strong enough to almost blow us off our feet and it was hard work walking into the full force on our faces.  However, we battled on and at least the heavy rain showers had stopped, and although it was cold, the wind was westerly, so not the bitter north-easterly of last year.

We were so glad we persevered as we saw fresh spraint at four of our sites, and at one  such a quantity of fresh and recent spraint that we are almost sure our Otter is a female with cubs.  Close by the spraint at almost every site there was the usual litter of American Signal crayfish remains and, now that spring is well advanced, the vivid splashes of new flowering red campion, deep blue-purple ground ivy, white cow parsley, garlic mustard, field speedwell and the newly emerging dock, giant hogweed and stinging and white dead nettle growing well all along the beach and the deep yellow buttercups, daisies, shepherd’s purse, groundsel, red dead nettle, dove’s foot cranesbill and mouse ear chickweed scattered over the thick lush pasture.

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The grass was also thick on the beach and we noticed fresh areas of crushed and flattened grass close to the water’s edge as if something had rolled around or laid there.  Rather sad that the shell filled beach which I had been looking forward to exploring and searching for new shells was now almost completely covered with new growth but I know that I will glory in the explosion of damselflies and dragonflies which will flit between those same plants in just a months time.  There seemed few birds about in the buffeting wind, apart from wood pigeons, blackbirds, wrens, tits, chaffinches, a  magpie, a few crows and a single chiff chaff, although we did set up a snow white Little Egret and 8 or 10 Mandarin ducks and a handful of Mallard once we reached the more secluded far end of our stretch of the river.  No sign of  Heron, Cormorants or the Swans we usually see and no sign of Kingfishers either.  Good to see the clear roe deer tracks in the wet sand, as usual only one set of tracks but this is evidently a favourite watering place.

Once we had checked all six of our sites, we were really glad to be heading back; it had become increasingly tiring battling the head wind so in spite of the sun coming out and the sky beginning to clear, we were just relieved to have finished our survey in one piece and looking forward to heading home for a well-earned lunch at last!

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As we were walking back we came across this mangled Blackbird corpse minus his head.  Nearby scat looked fox-like so it could have been fox kill, but as it was near the river, it could just as easily have been mink or even raptor prey.  Strangely enough, when we turned it over, its innards had been exposed but not eaten – maybe the predator was disturbed at its kill.

23rd April 2019

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The contents of Otter spraint we found two days ago has provoked a lively debate among the Somerset Otter Group as to the source of the thread-like remains in the (much enlarged) photograph above.  Suggestions so far include tapeworm, earthworth casing, parts of crayfish or any one of 42,000 intestinal worms presently held in an Australian museum.  Any other suggestions to add to the debate would be welcomed!

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DSCN6550 - Copy.jpg Evening: 

Excitement over.  At the suggestion of our co-ordinator at the Somerset Otter Group we returned to the river to collect the spraint to post off for analysis.

It was only when looking closely at the head of one of the many discarded American Signal Crayfish remains that we noticed the antennae – and the mystery was solved – not worms, not even intestinal ones, merely crayfish antennae!

We had no idea that Otter ate crayfish heads as we find so many but it now appears that sometimes they do.

We were glad to have gone down to the river because we found a very small signal crayfish on the pipe over the stream with several spots of anal jelly and then on the main beach we found four separate piles of very fresh spraint, coated with anal jelly, three in the grass, all filled with broken crayfish shell and one with a piece of antennae and all of them red from the crayfish.  Where the small deposits were on a large stone there was also some Mink droppings in the same place and a little distance away.

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The size of the spraint and the fact that there were so many led us to suspect this may be a sign of a mother Otter with cubs, particularly when we spotted an area of crushed grass which might be from the mother Otter lying down for her cubs to suckle.

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21st April 2019 / Temp: 22 C

DSCN6508 (5) - Copy - Copy.jpgMating Green Veined White butterflies

An amazingly hot sunny afternoon, wall to wall blue skies and glorious warm air, the perfect day for a stroll along the river where the water splashed round and over the stones and sparkled in the  sunlight.  Not surprising then to see two fresh Otter spraint on the bleached white stones exposed by the low water level, and none by the tunnel entrance.  Three whole days of wonderfully warm weather and a week without rain had tamed the river to make the water fun for a hungry Otter.

An explosion of pond skaters and tiny minnows, a bee fly, dung flies, crane flies, wasps, fat bumble bees and buff tailed bees both in the trees and hunting the tussocky grass, still thick and lush before the cows are put to pasture, scattered with buttercups, lady’s smock, ground-ivy, lesser celandine, mouse-ear chickweed, red campion, field speedwell, white and red dead nettle, comfrey and greater stitchwort, lots for the newly hatched Green Veined White butterflies to feed on and encouraging them to mate.  Many of the blackthorn trees were still covered in blossom and the hawthorn flowers were about to burst open so lots of Brimstone butterflies, a couple of Peacocks and dozens of Orange Tips all enjoying the rich flower pasture and hot sunshine.

What we thought was large Otter spraint below the weir which would have been a first sighting here, on clambering precariously down it turned out to be a wet piece of wood – oh dear!  More birds appeared as the afternoon progressed, we disturbed a Cormorant, Mallards and an almost adult Cygnet, still retaining some grey feathers but with strong wing beats as it flew over our heads.  Lovely to hear both the Green Woodpecker and the Greater Spotted Woodpecker as we walked and then later, sitting on the river bank in the welcome shade of an alder, we watched the Long Tailed Tits, Chaffinches, Wrens, a Robin in the crowded saplings on the opposite bank while hearing and watching a couple of Buzzards wheeling overhead, a party of chattering Jackdaws, a Herring Gull and several Crows flying over.  What bliss.

8th April 2019 / Temp: 12.5 Cwhite pheasant.JPGWhite Pheasant – Boatbirder.com

Weak, hazy sun, thin cloud and a chill easterly wind – a dull day matched by dull sightings on the Otter front.  Old pad marks by the tunnel, old crayfish remains near the weir, but no other signs that Otter had been around.  But there were midges galore, crane flies, hover flies, a few bees and many black spiders scurrying at top speed across the patches of bare ground between the grass tussocks.  Blue tits, Long tailed tits, Chaffinches, Wrens and Robins among the trees, Mallard and Mandarin Duck in the water and Magpies, Jackdaws, Rooks and Ravens overhead, the walk wasn’t without interest.

And then we saw the white Pheasant in the middle of the next field, first feeding, pecking around, and then strutting up and down.  We presume this bird is an escape from the close by Orchardleigh who also “lost” the 30 Partridge they bought, which also made good their escape.   White pheasants are purposely put into flocks that are being kept for shooting. They are ‘penalty birds’ – shooters are supposed to avoid them (thus adding to the sport), but if they kill one they have to pay an amount (£50 is usual) to a specified charity fund.

We tried to get closer, but as we moved, the pheasant moved, until it eventually hunkered down in the grass to hide from us so it seemed reasonable to download the photograph above to give a clearer idea of what we had seen (a first for both of us) than the photo below!

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Lots of lesser celandine, dandelions and marsh marigold plants in flower, making cheerful splashes of golden-yellow, ground-ivy, red and white dead nettle, a single ladies smock, its delicate pink-mauve flowers and the tiny white flowers of the chickweed lighting up the hedgerows which were ablaze with blackthorn blossom.  Chilly, overcast but most definitely spring.

30th March 2019 / Temp: 16 C

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Hazy sun, but warm enough to attract Peacocks, Commas and a female Orange Tip even though the breeze was chilly.  The water level was quite low, extraordinary how quickly just a few dry days can cause the level to drop significantly from the full spate on our last visit.

What started out as a Saturday afternoon’s amble along the river bank turned into a hunt in earnest when a casual check of one of our survey sites revealed fresh spraint at the entrance to the tunnel where just over a week ago we had seen the line of fresh pad marks and crayfish remains.

Greatly encouraged we then checked along the stream which runs under the road where for the first time we found fresh spraint on the large pipe which crosses the stream and a pad mark in the stream bed below.  Walking on we also found recent spraint on the bank beside the main river and yet farther on we found old and recent spraint on the root a tree growing on the beach very close to the water.  All of these positive finds were greatly encouraging after the worrying dearth of spraint sightings over the winter months.

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We always approach the beach with a feeling of anticipation.   Although we don’t always find Otter signs, the trees, plants, grasses, shells and flood detritus make for an enjoyable exploration as we hunt around, looking for treasure.  The Garden Banded snail is a common sight however its treacle coloured humbug stripes and white lip is very eye-catching but by far the best shell find of the day was the Ear Pond snail-shell which, as detailed in the mollusc book, does have an opening exactly like an ear.   We found both in the water at the beach edge which was surprising until we remembered the recent high water level which probably washed many shells into the river from the vegetation and small pond high up the beach just below where the steep bank leads onto the field.

Walking back we decided to check for signs of Otter along the small stream on the edge of the field which runs parallel to the river but although we walked the length of the stream there were no signs of anything very much.  Occasional large clumps of yellow flag iris plants whose fresh green grow promises flowers in the summer, many marsh marigold plants in full flower, stretches of stream so thick with fools water cress they almost choked the water, and drifts of lesser celandine and small pockets of white dog violet scattered below the leafless hedge bordering the stream.  There is a barbed wire fence along this bank which makes it difficult to check the water so we must return at another time and explore the stream from the adjoining field.  A dipping trip maybe.

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Leaving the stream we crossed the field to get back to the path, passing the cattle water trough where the ground is bare of grass where on the top of a large stone, half sunk, we caught sight of a black beetle.  Checking with the buglife website we discovered it was a Black Oil beetle which emerges at this time of the year.  We were surprised to read that although the Black Oil beetle is widespread and can be common locally, oil beetles have been subjected to drastic declines due to changes in the way our countryside is managed.  ‘Oil beetles have been identified as priorities for conservation action through the UK Biodiversity Action Plan – meaning urgent work needs to be done to conserve them and their habitats. The ideal habitat for oil beetles is wildflower-rich grassland and heathland – two habitats that have been lost from large parts of our countryside ‘.  buglife

The grass is thick and lush and thickly squishy underfoot with flowering chickweed, occasional lady’s smock already in flower amongst a scattering of lesser celandine and red dead nettle.  The dairy herd should be turned out soon and should have a feast!

27th March 2019 / Temp: 15CDSCN6355.JPGFreshford

With the sunshine sparkling on the water and toasting our backs as we walked along the path persuading ourselves it felt like summer, it was a perfect day to explore the river a few miles downstream from our normal hunting ground and it certainly didn’t disappoint.peacock butterfly.jpg

Red Admirals, a Female Orange Tip, Commas, a Brimstone and Peacock butterflies as well as fat bumble bees and two Bee-flies among the snakes-head fritillary, daffodils, lesser celandine, ground-ivy, primroses, dandelions and yellow wild brassica flowers made a glorious display and very welcome sight announcing spring was here at last.

Lots of activity on and around the river.  The two Dippers we disturbed were too fast for us to snatch a photograph, they were up and away almost before we noticed them.  The Kingfisher was level before we saw him but we were still quick enough to admire his beautiful iridescent blue wings as he flashed into the sunlight and headed downstream.  The pair of Goosanders swam regally by but even they took flight and flew off as did the Grey Heron and, eventually, all the Mallard, but the Chiff Chaff obligingly hopped around on the tree opposite long enough for us to identify, even though he remained silent.  As for the Raven, Green Woodpecker and Greater Spotted Woodpecker, we didn’t see any of them, merely heard their distinctive calls and drumming as we passed.

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Relieved of the obligations of surveying, we lay on our backs, soaking up the hot sun, listening to the river tumbling over stones, lazily examining the newly opened, bright green leaves of the branches outlined against the deep-blue sky, and idly watched a Buzzard circling overhead all of which made for a perfect way to spend an early Spring afternoon.

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We eventually managed to stir ourselves and clambered down the bank to look more closely at what we thought might be Otter spraint and we were right, on a stone close to the river’s edge there were two old spraints and one recent.  Any doubt was put to rest by the three or four pad marks the Otter kindly left in the sand.  It was noticeable that the number of depressed mussels we saw here far exceeded the number we see further upstream – they were everywhere in every possible size from tiny to very large.

Slowly ambling along the bank we saw at least four Wrens, a couple of Magpies, a Chaffinch, Blue Tits and Great Tits and heard what is impossible to ignore, the constant mournful call of the ubiquitous Wood Pigeons in the background – the continuous accompaniment to any rural walk.

21st March 2019 / 9.30-11.05am / Temp: 12 C

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Another dreary overcast day but mild particularly when we were protected from the cold wind; the river is medium high and running fast and turbulent.  The ground is boggy underfoot from weeks of rain but although there were no signs of Otter at the first site under and just a single Little Egret stock still the middle of the field in contrast to the Wrens and Tits and Magpies busying themselves amongst the trees, at the second site we were please to see a couple of pad marks close to the water’s edge although there were no signs of spraint or anal jelly.

As we walked towards the first beach the two Swans who were sitting comfortably on the sand first stayed put as if determined not to move and when we still kept coming, tried to deter us by busking, arching their wings in an attempt to defend their territory but when we climbed down onto the beach, they reluctantly entered the water and swam away upstream. We were pleased to find a classic sandy mound on the beach with fresh spraint on top, and two clear pad marks among the line of tracks leading up the beach before being lost to sight in the long grass and wild flowers, mostly large beds of red dead nettle, chickweed, birds eye and field speedwell, lesser celandine, white deadnettle and groundsel across the field as well as the river banks covered with lushly growing ramsons.

There were lots of depressed mussel shells and a few signal crayfish remains on the beach and our arrival also disturbed the usual flocks of twenty or more Mallard and groups of Mandarin Ducks, first six then eight, then a few more lifting up from the river and flying off over the fields and whilst we wandered about searching, we were entertained by both the drumming of a Great Spotted Woodpecker and the yaffling of a Green Woodpecker from the trees at the top of the hill as well as the Blue Tits and Great Tits from the trees surrounding us.

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Walking along to the next site we watched the great winter flocks of Jackdaws and Rooks above the trees on the hill, disturbed a few more Mandarin Ducks from the river and saw a Crow’s nest high up at the top of a tree with a quite a bit of disturbance and squabbling with many crows involved, possibly arguing over who would use the nest. Other signs of spring were the dog violets which looked particularly lovely under the gnarled old hawthorn with its low hanging branches as did the clumps of primroses in full flower on the opposite bank and the pussy willows, most of which were now covered in soft yellow pollen.

No sign of Otter on the beach – merely roe deer tracks in the soft mud leading down to the water, a scattering of pea clam shells and a few old crayfish remains.

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The most noticeable feature of this stretch of river bank is the well trodden badger path  and the extraordinary number of badger snuffle holes, diggings and latrines, dozens and dozens of them, many filled with fresh soft droppings.  Worm casts cover every inch of the fields we walked through, following the recent heavy rain, so no wonder there are so many badgers!

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Finally, as we were heading back home, we came across a rather sad sight.  Red Fox scat filled with hair, mostly grey but with strands of tell-tale reddish-brown, which suggests a young leveret.  We have seen a Brown Hare intermittently in this field, always a delight to watch and a thrill to see, and when we reported our sightings to the Hare Preservation Trust they thought by the behaviour that it was a female.  We can only hope that she had several young and the Fox had only managed to catch one of them.

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We spotted a large hole in the branch stump of the Ash tree which carries clumps of mistletoe growing on it.  It looked newly worked on and could possibly be a nest hole for a woodpecker as they begin their nest-building during March and April.

20th March 2019 / 9.10am – 11.45am / Temp 10 CDSCN6267 (2).JPG

Heavy cloud, mild with a stiff, chill wind but signs of spring everywhere from the clumps of primroses, emerging blackthorn blossom, pollen coated pussy willow flowers to the fresh young ramson leaves ready for picking, lesser celandine, red and white dead nettles and the very welcome splash of sunshine which are the clumps of marsh marigolds.

No signs of otter at the first five of our sites so we were tremendously excited at finding a clear trail of pad marks through the mud from a tunnel to the river on our last site. This and the remains of two American Signal crayfish just by the water confirmed that our otter was out and about even though yet again no sign of spraint or anal jelly.DSCN6266 (2).JPG

We have in the past often seen pad marks (although never so many) and spraint at the opening to this tunnel which links to the rill in the farmers’ fields so that the water can run down to the river under the road.  Our Somerset Otter Group mentor, Tony House believes that our otter is a female, possibly with young cubs which is why she is keeping to the tributaries and rills and away from the main river.

As we clambered up and down the bank to photograph the tracks and peer at the large stones in the river, we disturbed a tiny Wren, several Blue Tits and a pair of Tree Creepers foraging amongst the ivy clad tree trunks.  A splash of blood-red among the leaf litter revealed a Scarlet Elf Cup fungus.

While we were scrambling about we were greeted by a dog walker who told us that he often saw Otters when he was walking the dogs between 10.30 to 11pm each night and in fact had seen one near the weir only last night.  The fisherman on the bank who also spotted the Otter, immediately up sticks and left saying it was quite pointless to remain  The dog walker said he had been walking this river for 30 years and it was only during the past three or four years that he bad begun to see Otters pretty regularly.  His best sighting had been late one evening last summer when he had seen four playing around in the water along a quiet stretch of the river.

When we were minutely checking the big beach where most of the distressed mussel shells are to be found, we also saw two caddis fly larvae cases and on an area of beach where the river had just receded, hundreds and hundreds of tiny white shells.  When we checked them at home we found that they were tiny pea clam shells, only about 3 or 4 mm in size which we would not have noticed if they hadn’t been scattered with such profusion.

At the next beach we caught a brief glimpse of a Kingfisher, lots of Blue Tits and a pair of Greenfinches and we could hear the Canada Geese, almost certainly from the site we had checked earlier which was thick with their droppings all along the river bank.  Although this area is quite shaded from the density of trees it was lovely to see the many clumps of primroses and even a wild cherry with its newly opened flowers lighting up the woods.

No signs of Otters on the beach but lots of small animal tracks in the soft mud and we went through our usual is it/isn’t it with the tracks in the photograph below.   DSCN6285 (4).JPG

Are they Water Vole tracks or merely brown rat?  We are never totally confident although they did look like water vole to us but of course how can we be sure it is not  just wishful thinking!   DSCN6310 (4).JPG

And we always encounter the same problem with the small holes low down the river bank close to the water.  Are they Water vole burrows or perhaps crayfish lairs – who knows?

On the way back to the car we nearly trod on the small and delicate little pleated inkcap fungus, an unexpected very early harbinger of mid-spring.

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and also caught sight of a tree in the far distance of an adjoining field where there were seven Little Egrets perched on the branches.  We often see Cormorants grouped together like this but never before so many Little Egrets together.  Impossible to be able to distinguish at this distance whether there were juveniles among them but a good possibility.

6th February 2019 / 9.40am – 11.20am / Temp: 7.5-9C

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As the low-lying mist slowly cleared, the weak sun struggled through the thin cloud and it was considerably warmer than the past few days.  We sploshed and waded through the wide puddles and deeply rutted and muddy tractor tracks across the sodden fields to the river, setting up four swans as we turned down onto the water meadow.

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All the snow melt plus the overnight rain made the river look spectacular – in full spate creating whirlpools and swirling waves and eddies, rushing past at what seemed to be ten miles an hour or more – hard to imagine an Otter or anything else venturing along this stretch, and so it proved for we found no signs along either beach, not surprising perhaps as most of each was underwater.  A Heron flew up from the river, followed by at least fifteen to twenty Mandarin Ducks and a single Cormorant, and we could hear a Greater Spotted Woodpecker drumming from the woodland at the top of the hill.  The air was alive with the sound of birdsong, Great Tits, Blue Tits, Wrens and Blackbirds from every  tree we passed.

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Walking proved rather tricky over the boggy ground and one of us slipped and fell in an attempt to check the flooded beaches and the other was caught by a trailing bramble and fell heavily on the muddy bank, but luckily we were both unhurt. DSCN6185 (3).JPG         DSCN6185 (4).JPG

There were crayfish remains close to the beach and some empty river mussel shells but no spraint that we saw at the time but on checking our photographs on returning home saw this one of an anthill showing what might have been a crayfish coloured spraint, but impossible to be sure from a photograph.

A scattering of crow feathers – very unusual as we most often see wood-pigeon kill – although it is said that both hawks and owls will attack crows, enlivened our walk as did lots of badger snuffle holes and pretty sizeable diggings all along the river’s edge and more and more mole hills –  which seem to increase in number at every visit. The Rooks and Jackdaws were shouting at the tops of their voices as usual and, just as we were leaving to move onto the next site, we saw a Little Egret take off.

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As we climbed over the stile into the next field we had the fleeting, quite stunning sight of innumerable numbers of gulls – Lesser Black Backed, Black Headed and Herring gulls – floating in the lake formed by flooding from the river, strutting around on the grass and circling overhead.  Within what seemed a few seconds, they all rose as one and flew off and disappeared into an adjoining field beyond the trees, leaving the scene quiet and empty with flooded ditches and heavy boggy ground.

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Although the margins of the river were calm and quiet, the main current was very much in spate, as fast and swift as upriver, full of swirling pools as it hurtled downstream before crashing over the weir.  We at last found one recent spraint on top of a molehill but no other Otter signs and no tracks so the croak of a Raven flying overhead, a scooting wren along the reeds and the rattling alarm call of a Blackbird were welcome sights and sounds in what was otherwise a hopeless search.

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We were rather astonished to see an acorn tucked carefully into a fissure in the bark with what looked like imprints where others had been.  Thinking they must have been a squirrel hoard, we were surprised to read that acorns are main food staple of Jays and who evidently store acorns in trees as part of their winter hoard distribution as well as hiding them in the ground.

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Winter is lovely really because we notice things which in the warmer months we simply don’t see.  How many times have we used the trunk of the Giant Sequoia to steady ourselves and clocked but not seen the tree.  Today for the first time we caught sight of a female cone on the ground beneath the tree, wet and gleaming, the tiny fronds of bright green moss and intricate patterning drawing and delighting the eye and we consequently “saw” the tree.  An extraordinarily exotic planting amongst the staid English alder, poplar, ash and holly surrounding it.

2nd February 2019 / 1.30pm – 2.50pm / Temp 3.5 C

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After yesterdays swirling snow storms and grey skies followed by the sub-zero freeze overnight, the day broke to clear skies and bright sunshine and although the temperature took all morning to rise above freezing, it was a perfect winter day.  The sun hot, the air fresh and clear, like champagne – totally exhilarating and we crunched across the snow-covered fields with rising spirits.

There were few signs of life save a few of the usual birds, Robins, Tits, Chaffinches, Blackbirds in the trees, Ravens, Jackdaws, Wood Pigeons, Crows and Buzzards overhead and Mallard in the river, but the whole scene was so beautiful and the air so crisp we were totally unconcerned.

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We were however pleased to see recent (since our last visit) signs of half-eaten American Signal Crayfish and empty River Mussel shells along the gravel beach even though there were no signs of Otter spraint or anal jelly.

We checked the whole beach carefully, more out of a sense of duty rather than in the hope of finding any further signs when we suddenly caught sight of what looked like a line of pad marks coming up from the river and along the inches deep snowy beach.

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There was a great sense of anticipation as we very carefully followed the line.  At first, to our great disappointment, most of  pad marks were too blurred to discern quite what they were with any certainty but then huge excitement – we found a couple of clear Otter prints among the partially melted line of tracks.

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Alas, there were still no signs of spraint and no more pad marks.  We walked along the river bank, checking every site until we reached the little beach where we found nothing apart from dog tracks and boot marks.  However, the cold air, brilliant sunshine and walking through such a beautiful landscape brought out the child in us and faced with fields covered in unbroken layers of four inches of pristine snow and myriad tracks in every direction, it proved impossible not to follow some of the tracks to see where they went.

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There were clusters of completely isolated bird tracks,  just half a dozen prints but coming from nowhere and going nowhere which we could only assume were signs that the birds had merely landed taken a few steps and flown off again.

One set of tracks led from a small hollow or depression in the snow suggesting a Pheasant might well have sat out the storm as the snow fell around it before standing it and strutting carefully, dragging its tail, down the length of the field….

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where its prints disappeared among the pock marks under the trees.

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One set, probably a Mallard, showed a line plodding across the river bank heading for the edge where it must have plopped down into the water.

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And finally, a set of very large boot tracks – one man and his dog – the man’s prints walking purposefully across the field, the dog’s prints skittishly dashing in circles and chasing after who knows what.

A totally perfect end to a perfect afternoon and we crunched happily if rather tiredly home with glowing faces and equally glowing spirits!

17th January 2019 / Temp: 3 C

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A perfect January day – bitterly cold with a keen icy wind, brilliant sparkling sunshine in a clear blue sky – a great day to be messing about by the river!

Unfortunately no signs of Otter despite wading through the freezing water which even managed to penetrate our Wellington boots in a forlorn attempt to discover a splash of anal jelly or a tiny spraint.   We became quite excited after spotting some pad marks in the soft mud under the bridge but on closer inspection they proved by their size and shape more likely to be hedgehog even though they should be hibernating at this time of the year; perhaps like our Japanese quince which is freely flowering now rather than it’s normal time in March-April, it has been fooled by the inceasingly mild winters.  Some promising looking spraint on the gravelly beach farther along the river, we were unfortunately unable to positively identify – no smell but no signs of bones either and although there was a recent crayfish claw close by, we thought on balance it was probably not otter spraint.  The only other droppings we noticed, apart of course from dog, were found to be Roedeer.

Half a dozen or more corn cob husks across one area of the water meadow together with a bleached Wood-pigeon rib cage close by was the sum total of field sightings save for a single Grey Heron standing forlornly in the centre of the grass.  Streams of Rooks, Jackdaws, Crows, Gulls and Wood Pigeons were constantly flying overhead, Blue Tits, Chaffinches, a Wren and Pheasant introduced themselves but the saving grace of a pretty uneventful but sparkling morning was the sight of at least seven or eight Redwings inspecting the adjoining field, joined by a couple of Fieldfares and parties of finches.  Has Earth anything to show more fair than Fieldfares and Redwings in winter?  Of course not – London, so beloved of Wordsworth, does not even come close.  We rested half way home on a log conveniently sited out of the icy wind and lifted our faces to soak up the hot sun on our winter starved skin – what bliss.

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A view taken from above  of one of the moss gardens clinging to the walls of the weir, a brilliant splash of colour in the scintilating winter sunshine.  Spirit lifting indeed!

9th January 2019

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Yet another brisk walk through thick hoar-frost coated grass and plants on a brilliantly sunny but icily cold morning to collect the trail camera and check for signs of Otter.  Disappointingly only one recent spraint on a prominent stone on the beach and no other signs.  The film from the camera revealed a couple of squirrels running along a branch and a small mouse scampering across the beach (whether wood or harvest difficult to discern but we veered towards harvest by the size of its eyes)  and nearly two hundred shots of moving grasses after the camera slipped and fell or was knocked onto the ground!  The joys of infra red cameras are possibly sometimes rather overstated.

6th January 2019

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A quick dash to the river to collect the memory card and change the batteries on the trail camera.  Another chill, very dull afternoon, again with low light which made it difficult to see anything, so perhaps it was just as well there was so little to see.  Lots of tracks in the silt and mud of the beaches – Roedeer, Grey Heron, Little Egret and maybe Hare, possibly Water Vole but more likely Brown Rat but no signs of Otter.  Three scatterings of pigeon feathers along the bank, showing that at least the raptors are finding sufficient sustenance in these cold mid-winter days.

The one highlight of the afternoon was catching sight of a Brown Hare shooting diagonally across the field above us; he sped at full tilt and extraordinary speed up the field, under the electric fence, across the path and up the hill until we lost sight of him as he disappeared into the hedgerow.

The Brown Hare, two Grey Heron, a party of some 30 or so Mallard and Mandarin Ducks, two Mute Swans together and farther upstream the single remaining cygnet of last year’s brood on its own, the usual flocks of Gulls, Crows, a Blackbird and Wood-pigeons was the sum total of life in and around the river.  The film from the trail camera was equally disappointing – birds (mostly tits) fluttering around, a beautiful recording of the river in fast flow, but no signs of the Otters we so longed to see.  Another day, another time….

3rd January 2019

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The promising sunshine and blue skies of early morning had disappeared by the time we reached the river and although the light was slightly better than yesterday, it was still chill and gloomy and we set off on our hunt for Otter spraint with few expectations which turned out to be well justified.

Two small signs of spraint on a single stone on one of the beaches, the other under the bridge and if it hadn’t been for the tell-tale signs of minute fish scales and bones in the black tarry substance we would have written them off as bird droppings.  However, we decided to go ahead and set up the trail camera in the triumph of hope over experience that we might capture a glimpse of a passing Otter in the next week or so.  While we were searching for a suitable site and sturdy enough tree, a Kingfisher’s shrill whistle alerted us in time to see him flash by, inches above the water, and later flash back again before disappearing into the sandy river bank just before the bend in the river.  Before we finished fussing over the camera, he hurtled past again, like a shot from a rifle, always with his warning whistle – this is my river, get out of my way!  A Robin hopped about watching us, inquisitive as ever, a party of Blue Tits, Great Tits and Long Tailed Tits flittered through the branches and from tree to tree

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Despite the little Otter activity and the cold, it was good to be out, to watch the 25 or more Mallard taking flight at our approach, the Heron circling above, the huge flock of uncountable numbers of Rooks and Jackdaws amongst the cattle and the 50 plus Herring and Lesser Black Backed gulls taking full charge of the water meadow.  The wonderful sound of a Raven’s croak echoing across the fields lifted our spirits, as did the small clump of well-grown snowdrops and the pussy willows already showing off their brilliant white tips.  Surprisingly Shepherd’s Purse, Red Dead Nettle, Chickweed and Field Speedwell were all in flower although their petals were firmly closed due to the gloomy light.

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Although we didn’t see any Otter pad marks in the thick soft mud of the beaches, there were small Roe-deer prints and Little Egret and Heron prints, Mallard and dog prints everywhere, fresh mole hills, the bleached remains of a wood-pigeon, every inch of its bones picked clean and three Mandarin ducks taking flight away from the river showed that the local wildlife were coping well with the winter days.

2nd January 2019

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Very overcast and gloomy, although it was early afternoon, the light seemed more like twilight.  As we reached the gravel beach we saw what might well have been an Otter judging by the wake produced by a sizeable body swimming under the water.  At the time we dismissed the idea as it seemed unlikely given the time of day.

No other signs of life as we checked all along the river’s edge and not one sign of Otter spraint, although there were a good number of empty Duck Mussel shells scattered over the beach.  A Little Egret lifted from the weed choked stream which has formed a pond.  It must be good feeding territory because a pair of mallard also flew off.

We had surveyed most of our sites and were on the final stretch when we met a fisherman who was moving his pitch and was extremely chatty and informative.  Amazingly, as he had arrived at the river early afternoon, he caught sight of a small Otter (possibly a female) hunting upriver along the opposite bank, hugging close to the edge.  She swam on past, completely oblivious to the fisherman watching her every move.  He said that it is the first time he had seen an Otter so early in the day, although he often saw them while fishing in the late evenings in summer.  This made us wonder if what we had seen in the water was indeed an Otter but we will never know.

He was a mine of information – on eels, the massive decline in their numbers down to 5% of their 1980 numbers and having dropped even lower from when he started fishing 30 odd years ago, due it was believed to imported eels carrying a parasite which played havoc with their swim bladders, affecting their ability to move up and down through the ocean’s layers and the exceedingly deep water they swam through on their way to the Sargasso Sea to spawn.  At one time eels were the favoured diet for Otters and the crash in numbers would certainly have an effect on their predating other prey, especially fish.

He believed that many of the Pike he caught, even the big ones, had signs of Otter attack, slices taken off their tails and long scratch marks down their sides.  There were a good number of very large Chub along this stretch, and when we mentioned American Signal Cray fish he said the river was swarming with them and that they nibbled at his bait while he was fishing!

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The light was getting worse by the minute and we separated, he to fish now the light was right and us to head home.  As we crossed the water meadows towards the stile, three Mute Swans flew down the river towards us, circled and then flew over our heads and headed farther down river.  The sound of their large and powerful wings making a rhythmic whistling ‘wou wou’ sound, extraordinarily loud and evocative in the still air, and their synchronised wing beat was quite magical.  Some winter’s days bring unexpected delights, despite the temperature being a chill 4 Celsius and the day almost dark and dead looking.

– 21st December 2018 – Winter Solstice –

19th December 2018

The Environmental Agency have today released 6,300 fish into the Somerset River Frome (including 2,000 roach, 1,500 chub, 1,000 bream, 600 tench, 600 crucians [carp – which like water lilies and tree shade – plenty of both on this stretch of the Frome] and 600 dace).  The restocking is part of an annual programme, funded by rod licence sales.  Restocking occurs in winter because water temperatures are low which minimises any stress on the fish, giving them the best possible survival rates.  Restocking is done where numbers are low or have been depleted following a pollution incident, as happened in Frome in Spring 2016.  This is good news for the Frome Angling Association and our local Otters!

11th December 2018 / 7 C

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

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

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

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

The river was so quiet and calm there, with no sign of the turbulence farther upstream, but still very full.  He had seen a Cormorant earlier, but no other birds apart from the Blackbirds, we had also noticed and the usual Tits, Crows and Jackdaws.

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

10th December 2018 / 7 C

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

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

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

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

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

11th November 2018 / 12.5 C

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

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

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

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

6th November 2018 / 13.5 C

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

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

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

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

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

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

21st October 2018 / 13.5 C

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

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

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

DSCN5424.JPG– Ernie –

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

10th October 2018 / 22.5 C

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

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

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

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

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

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

9th October 2018 / 12.5 C – 18 C

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

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

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

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

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

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

DSCN5250.JPGPossibly Bearded Fieldcap Mushroom

 23rd September 2018

Autumn Equinox –

9th September 2018

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

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

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

evelyn-simak1.jpgCopyright:  Evelyn Simak

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

6th September 2018 / 15 – 17 CDSCN4990.JPG

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

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

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

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

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5th September 2018 / 17.5 – 19 CDSCN5034.JPG

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1st August 2018 – 19.5 – 22 C

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

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

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

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

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

2nd August 2018 – 19 C

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

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

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 Stone Horseshoe

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

21st July 2018 – 25.5 C

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

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

7th July 2018  – 24 C

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

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

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

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

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23rd June 2018 / 9.30am – 3pm / 23 C

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

11th June 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Red Kite – Rebecca Muirhead

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

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

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

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

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

14th May 2018

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The leaves and buds on the horse chestnut tree are beginning to unfold.  Perfect timing for hungry Hazel Dormice who are emerging from their winter hibernation and the tiny nest in the photograph below might well be an abandoned nest.

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28th/29th April – Temperature 8.5-9 CFEMALE KIT.jpgFemale Kit – copyright Tony House

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

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

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

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

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

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

19th April 2018 – Temperature: 22 C

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

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

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

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15th April 2018: 10am – 1.30pm

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

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

5th April 2018: 10am – 12.30pm

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

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

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

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LIST OF SPECIES

[Sighted along the surveyed stretch of the River Frome]

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

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

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

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

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

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

# Sighted by Others

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