Female Otter 2016 – copyright Tony House
The River Frome
The 21 mile long Somerset River Frome rises near Witham Friary, gathering smaller rivers, streams and tributaries along the way, including those from Colliers Way route 24, before flowing through the town of Frome and on to Freshford where it joins the Bristol Avon. The Somerset Otter Group have asked us to survey a stretch of the River for signs of Otters. Reports of Otter sightings in the streams on Colliers Way sparked our interest; we knew dog Otters can sometimes travel up to twenty miles a night in search of food so the likelihood of it being a foraging Otter from the River Frome was pretty high so we were delighted to help. Somerset Otter Group
10th July 2019 / Temp: 22 C / Water Level: Low
Pond 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!
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.
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
Little 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.
Common 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.
Large 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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Icheumon 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.
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.
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: High
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.
one 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!
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
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.
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!
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.
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: LowA 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.
Yellow May (Heptagenia sulphurea) Mayfly 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 children fishing for crayfish in the feeder streams 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
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.
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
(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.
(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.
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 2019
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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
A 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
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.
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!
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
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!
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.
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.
21st April 2019 / Temp: 22 C
Mating 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 – 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!
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
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.
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.
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: 15CFreshford
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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!
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.
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 C
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.
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.
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!
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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….
where its prints disappeared among the pock marks under the trees.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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!
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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!
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.
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
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.
– 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
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.
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
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!
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.
Possibly Bearded Fieldcap Mushroom
23rd September 2018
– Autumn Equinox –
9th September 2018
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.
Copyright: 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 C
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.
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.
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.
5th September 2018 / 17.5 – 19 C
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.
No signs of Otter along the stony beach and only one solitary Banded Demoiselle reminding us of summer days.
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.
14th August 2018 – 19 C
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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!
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
23rd June 2018 / 9.30am – 3pm / 23 C
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.
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.
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
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.
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 F
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
28th/29th April – Temperature 8.5-9 CFemale 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.
Mandarin Duck copyright Tony House
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.
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
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.
A small tributary of the River Frome near Lullington showing travertine deposit on the stream bed
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.
Despite the cold driving rain and strong blustery winds, we saw lots of spraint, otter slides and tunnels which otters make through the undergrowth to the water’s edge. It was extremely informative and an extra bonus to hear a Water Rail, Blackcap and Cetti’s Warbler and to see Heron, a group of Swallows and a small herd of eight or so Roe Deer grazing together on one of the marsh islands.
5th April 2018: 10am – 12.30pm
We have volunteered to survey a stretch of the River Frome for the Somerset Otter Group which isn’t presently being checked. As we are complete novices, we were very fortunate that Anthony House, a committee member who has been surveying and recording otters for more than twenty years agreed to show us the ropes. Not surprisingly his knowledge and expertise is prodigious and as we walked the course, he pointed out the areas where we could expect to see spraint (scat), tracks, slides and scrapes if an otter was active in the area. He explained that spraint is often deposited on prominent features like rocks, fallen trees, bridge supports and storm drains and that the deposits act as scent markers to other otters and are used to define territories.
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!
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