Sunday, 1 February 2015

Nature Notes 2014

·         Many of these initial pieces result from exploring the low-lying areas between Bristol and the Severn Estuary – apparently blighted by motorways and industry, yet full of charm and interest when exploring by foot... ‘Rhines’ are the little man-made drainage rivers  that criss-cross these areas.
·         Another place frequently mentioned is Upton upon Severn, 50 miles north of Bristol. A family member has bought a riverside cabin there, where I can now go and stay, walk, swim  and paint and meditate on watery things...
·         Another newcomer is the Pilning Wetlands – newly-matured lagoons behind the New Passage salt marsh and estuary area just west of Bristol, the variety of habitats providingreat bird-watching.
New Passage, view towards old Severn Bridge. By Mrs Trellis


Below Almondsbury

Almondsbury by L Pryce

Recently I have been exploring an area of flat levels below Almondsbury village just north of Bristol towards the Severn Estuary, bounded by two motorways, a main road and a railway. I’d not bothered walking there before, assuming it was too adversely affected by all those big traffic arteries. However it turns out to be strangely unspoiled, with wetland levels and tiny villages left behind in time. It has some strange names too – the hamlet of Ingst (a west country form of angst?) with the Old Splott Rhine adjacent. And lovely for bird-watching...

Winter thrushes
How exciting it is on a brilliant winter’s day to walk along a quiet lane with big hedgerows each side, and with every step disturb 5 or 10 redwings who fly forward before flipping over into the adjoining fields to join their friends – the sense of verve and vivid life lurking all around...

MoD path
I returned to a path alongside the big Filton Ministry of Defense site, whose impressive hedgerows had been so thick with native fruits and berries earlier this autumn. What a change! All picked bare except for a very few dog rose, privet and guelder rose berries, and alder and ash fruits above. Goldfinches and the ubiquitous redwings in the thickets, and a coal tit. The bare branches revealed many nests, large and small, tucked inside.

Winter gnats
A few weeks ago I had seen with surprise a swarm of quite large gnat-like insects hovering over a damp ditch area by a country path- it seemed too cold for this summery display. I asked an entomologist colleague who said they would be a species of winter gnat, and that as these seemed to be becoming more common they may be a factor in such warblers a chiffchaff managing to overwinter. I hadn’t previously consciously seen or even heard of winter gnats! Another insect enthusiast wrote, ‘If you have a compost heap in your garden you probably have your own home grown winter gnats. I think the interesting synchronised "up and down"  waves you get  in the swarms are the males in a "lek"’ – swarming to attract the females.

Lawrence Weston. By Stephen Burns
Lawrence Weston Moor (a small nature reserve sandwiched between  a ‘rough’ housing estate on the edge of Bristol, and the large Avonmouth industrial area on the Severn Estuary)
Does anyone have any direct experience of Lawrence Weston Moor? I was exploring there yesterday and was very struck by its unspoilt beauty – though blighted by traffic roar from the adjacent motorways, it's far enough from the housing area to remain unblighted by casual litter and dog s**t as the nearer open spaces were. Of course it was very wet (this was during the catastrophically wet winter of 2013/2014) but then it's a moor and always meant to be a bit wet... ! I subsequently researched the area online and found it was ' of the few remaining fragments of the marshes which used to stretch all the way from Blaise Castle to Avonmouth as part of the North Somerset Levels', jointly managed by the city council and local wildlife trusts, and deemed to be full of interesting plants and wildlife, including little owls and snipe.
LW Moor. By Sharon Loxton
A friend reminisced from his notes back in 1976, when Avonmouth was still a major pollutant: ‘The land  stretched from Lawrence Weston right out to the huge industrial smelter which contaminated huge areas of sedge growing there. Trees were dead and dying, and adjoining rhines were contaminated with acid rain.Bird nest recording was carried out under the noses of the security guards who always sent you packing if they found you, and any search of the area would result in your legs being covered from toe to thigh with a dark grey dust which got through your clothes - but the chase was great fun. Nevertheless, my records show breeding Yellow Wagtail, Kestrel, Lapwing, Blackbird, Sedge Warbler, Meadow Pipit, Coot, Moorhen, Mallard, Reed Bunting, Skylark. Other notes show Hobby taking House Martin,and watching water voles quietly in a rhine when a very dirty Grey Heron appeared, and - not seeing me - started to devour a clutch of downy Mallard.’


A feeding frenzy at Aust Wharf
Short-eared Owl.  By Alan Chard
I was inspired by a colleague Dave’s description of extraordinary scenes at Aust Wharf on the Severn Estuary, caused by exceptionally high tides coming over salt marsh, reedbeds and the access road and forcing a flood of small mammals onto higher ground, accompanied by a feeding frenzy of short-eared owls and gulls. On the following day  I went there myself to catch the start of the next high tide, when the sea came up and flooded the road again to up to a foot deep. Two short-eared owls appeared at each end of the marsh – it had been a while since I last saw one and I had forgotten how lovely they are with their magnificent colours and markings and bullet-round heads. The
Gull eats vole. By Hilary Kington
owl at the north end flew out over the estuary with a gang of black-headed gulls (all beautifully framed with the old Severn Bridge behind) – and I couldn't see why until I realised that the gulls were mobbing it. Then I realised the gulls were mobbing everything, including crows and a little egret that flew by, to drive them away from the mice and voles below. I hadn't realised until  then that black-headed gulls even eat small mammals (I tend to think of them as rather cute and benign!), but it was quite a killing field across that salt marsh. However I didn’t experience the full 'exodus of the voles' as described by Dave (perhaps those that had survived from the day before had stayed up in the higher fields) and I saw just one large rat swimming across the road to safety. Still, an experience!

A Red-flanked Bluetail
Red-flanked Bluetail. By Ian Stapp
I was taken to see a rarity at Marshfield today: a Red-flanked Bluetail - a pretty confiding little robin-like bird that has been blown off-course and has made a temporary home in sheltered hedgerow by a stream. The stream valley was swarming with twitchers (bird-watchers who concentrate on rarities often to the detriment of everything else) and oversized cameras, and as usual my main feeling was of pity for the little creature so far from its proper habitat, and its probable rather grim or at least lonely future. However a Bristol Wildlife member said,  ‘Actually it could be closer to its "home" than it should be: it is clear that the massive increase in British records correlates with the westward expansion of its range, so the probability is that this bird originates from the boreal forests of Finland or west Russia. Were it in the traditional wintering location for west Siberian birds it would be in the Indian Subcontinent somewhere. So it has a shorter journey home than it might.’
Greater Flamingos. By Peter Wilton

Cyprus flamingos
I recently visited the salt lakes of Larnaka on Cyprus’ south coast. Extensive lagoons fed by sea water oozing through  intervening sand dunes, they are home to a salt-loving red algae which are then food for brine shrimp. In turn flamingos come here to overwinter and eat the shrimps. The lakes are shallow, still and very clear, and the few score of flamingos made a most beautiful picture standing and wading in their stately way with a perfect mirror image reflected below them - pink plumage against blue sky. Very different from the images I’ve seen on TV of thousands of them splashing in opaque African soda lakes.

Frogspawn. By David Baird
Late frog-spawn
A friend has two small pools in her city-centre back garden, which would normally be full of frog-spawn by this date; however this year spawn seemed to be either late or missing altogether. A wildlife colleague sent her this intriguing insight: ‘I just attended a talk by a member of the Reptile and Amphibians Conservation Trust, and put your frog-spawn question to him. Apparently the late date this year is down to the very wet winter: normally the frogs sense a volatile oil given off by algae which attract them to the pond to breed. However the algae levels have been very low this year due to dispersion by high water  levels, hence very little spawn until this week… amazing!’

Early Spring in Gordano Valley, Bristol. By Lois Pryce

Coot ‘Lek’
Fighting Coots. By Tony Hisgett
A bird walk at Portbury Wharf nature reserve today witnessed a sight that even experienced birders said they hadn’t seen before. On the more inland lake, four male coots were all displaying vigorously to each other with wings puffed up, swan-like – like little black Sidney Opera Houses! Then a furious fight would break out between a pair, with their long green feet brought up to press hard against the opponent’s chest, and in extreme cases the loser forced head down into the water and the opponent apparently trying to drown him. Then back to more displaying... still continuing after about twenty minutes watching. Even by coots’ quarrelsome standards, this was extreme!
(Lek: a gathering of males in one spot for competitive fights & mating displays to impress the watching females...)

Early spring in the Gordano Valley (marsh levels just south of Bristol)
Lesser Celandines. By Chris Reynolds
A variety of flies were loving the newly-emerging Alexander flower heads.
There were spectacular banks of Lesser Celandine with their shining yellow flowers. Because some flowers looked unusually large, I counted petal numbers and see online that these can vary from between seven and twelve - which makes a big difference to the flower’s appearance. Surely unusual in plants to have such a variation?

Local jackdaws
Yesterday a pair of jackdaws were in my back garden vegetable plot, enthusiastically tearing large bits off the agricultural fleece covering some seedlings - so enthusiastically that I protected it with netting, but laid out more for them to ravage as they wish – they seem to love it for their nests.
Later, sitting in my stationary car out front I watched a jackdaw drop in quite a strong wind from about 25 feet up. It was a perfectly controlled vertical drop with its legs hung down the whole way - it looked like a little person parachuting...

Merlin at Goldcliff Wetlands Reserve, Newport
Merlin. By Mrs Trellis
At a wetlands reserve yesterday I saw my first ever Merlin. It did a sparrowhawk-type low stealth swoop over an embankment and across the lagoons, and later was seen about 40 foot high giving full-on horizontal chase to a chaffinch, and gaining. I have never seen a bird of prey run down another bird in this way – scarily impressive.
(Merlins – the smallest British birds of prey. They are the only ones to give chase horizontally and run down other birds through sheer speed; rather than dropping from above or using other ‘stealth’ moves)

Pied Wagtails in City Centre
On a recent trip into the middle of Bristol, I observed a pied wagtail roost accumulating in the City Centre as dusk fell. Pretty much ignored by all the people hurrying home after work,  swathe after swathe of the little birds flew in low from roof-top levels and started settling into the branches of the large plane trees that grow in the central pedestrian islands. It’s such a pretty sight, and one that happens in many a modern urban area – pied wagtails seem to love lights, paving and people!


Nuthatches & squirrels
Nuthatch. By Katie Horrocks
Two friends have a chalet at Cadbury Camp with a picture view down steep wooded slopes. One of the nearest tall pine trees has a nest box on it, with an entrance hole designed for blue tits but which they recently enlarged, as the tits ignored it and nuthatches kept trying to get in. Yesterday we watched a nuthatch pair busily go to and fro to the box, bringing old beech leaves and pieces of bark torn from a nearby pine (I see from online information that this is their main nesting material - and it looks rather uncomfortable...).
About 15 feet above on the same tree was a grey squirrel drey (nest) with a family in it. We watched one family member tearing fibres from the thick vines wrapping the tree, to take up to it; and then two or three of the squirrels come down, sit on the nest box roof, hang underneath it, and try to poke their 'fingers' into it. Are the nuthatches so confident of being safe in their new home, that they can ignore the threat of these nosy squirrels?

Local jackdaws
It is interesting to watch how our local jackdaws have gradually changed their ways... Over a decade ago they began living and nesting on the roofs down our street, and until a few years ago they were too timid to visit street level or back gardens, let alone when humans were present. Then they began to land on fences, look out carefully for many minutes, and then perhaps make an extremely brief dash to pick up some food or nesting material before flying immediately away. But just now I was bent down planting some seedlings, and only a few feet behind me a pair of them landed and were busy foraging in the lawn, bold as brass. Such caution must be a strong evolutionary habit that no doubt has served them well.

Horse chestnuts...
Flowering chestnuts By David Hawgood
After the wet spring, the horse chestnut trees were very advanced this year – fully leaved by the end of March - ahead of all other trees - with their flower candles showing in early April and fully out a fortnight later.

...& plantains
It’s also been a wonderful spring for plantains (the small generally inconspicuous weedy plantago family – nothing to do with the tropical banana!): meadows and roadsides are swathed with their nodding dark reddish candle heads.
Flowering plantains. By Kurt Steuber

‘The reproductive imperative’ around Newton St Loe
Spring urges were evident in meadows, fields and hedgerows round this village near Bath, including a chaffinch pair mating in a blossoming apple tree, a crow pair changing over sitting-duty at their nest with loving bill caresses, and a yellowhammer pair sat in a shrub with downy nesting material visible in the female’s bill...

‘My’ blackbird
I often wrote about 'my' blackbird and his distinctive song motif, returning to our garden area year after year. Then about three years ago I didn't hear him there, and then briefly heard him on the other side of the road as though he had been deposed. Then nothing for two years and I thought that was the end of him.
But he's back, and back in his old spot! So amazing to be hearing his little tune - inventively modified as it always was every year, but distinctively his. It had always surprised me that other people didn't respond about 'their' blackbirds whom they could recognise by song; and surely there was a little scientific study to be done here?

Blackbird's song transcription, by Heinz Tiesses

Then a friend sent me details of a research paper, ‘The development of song in the Blackbird’ by Joan Hall-Craggs. I so recognised the different song developments, and felt relieved that I hadn’t been wandering in a mad world of my own! For other birdy nerds, her summary is below (how provocative is her final sentence!):

‘An analysis is made of the song of one wild Blackbird in 1957 in south Oxfordshire. Sample recordings were made throughout the song period, and methods of analysis are described. The composition of the song at the beginning of the season is described. Reference is made to the “practising” habit, to the early formation of compound phrases and to a tendency to use certain phrases in particular contexts.26 phrases, used at the outset of the season, constituted a basis upon which the developed forms were built. Five means of treating existing phrases were found: (1) whole phrases and extracts from phrases were combined to form new phrases; (2) new material was added to existing phrases; (3) notes contained within the phrase were repeated; (4) new terminal decorations were added to phrases; (5) phrase contraction by the omission of notes occurred. Phrases were organized into recurring series, many of which became permanent. Such organization of the song phrases, and the creation and extension of compound phrases, continued throughout the season. The influence of terminal decorations upon phrase order. It was found that an increase in frequency of occurrence of developed forms was usually balanced by a corresponding decrease in the use of the phrases from which they were derived. Certain highly developed forms were used much more frequently than their related basic phrases. Infrequently used developed forms appeared to be of transitional character, while those that were not retained were replaced by new forms. The response to the song of another Blackbird is described. Counter singing, communal singing and antiphonal singing by the two birds were recorded. The scolding “churr” of a Blue Tit was copied and retained as a terminal decoration to a phrase. The mature song presented a distinct contrast to the early song. Manipulation of material rather than material as such was responsible for the song development. It is suggested that deliberate selection of material occurred. The song is discussed as a functional and an aesthetic activity and an attempt is made to correlate the two aspects.’


Swifts in Dubrovnik
Alpine Swifts. By Richard Crossley
I just returned from an unexpected short trip to Dubrovnik, staying in an attic room high up in the Old Town. Every late afternoon large parties of swifts gathered to sing and circle across the city roofs, a fabulous sight and sound (apparently the city is famous for its swifts), with the Common and Alpine forming two separate groups singing contrapuntally. I hadn’t viewed Alpine swifts before with their white fronts, larger size and more stately, straightforward flight without the Common’s jinking; and enjoyed their sharp chattering vocalisations that sounded like bat calls translated through a bat detector. As they cruised past the attic windows, they looked strangely like penguins swimming underwater, making one feel momentarily that one was in the ocean depths...

Glamourous moth
Juniper Ermine Moth. By Entomart
I just looked up a moth reported by a wildlife colleague - the Argyresthia trifasciata (Juniper Ermine Moth). What a stunning little insect - gold and silver stripes, the glamour!

Swallow at Southstoke
...we watched a swallow sitting on a tree twig,  reminding us that they must have perched somewhere before mankind and his invention of roof ridges, fences and telegraph lines!

House Martins
House Martins. By Ian Wilson
At Sea Mills today I watched house martins gathering mud on the Avon river banks, to construct their nests under the eaves of the adjacent railway station building. As they perched briefly and delicately to pick beakfuls from the oozy slopes, I realised I hadn't previously appreciated the beautiful blue iridescence that mantles their shoulder feathers - perhaps it is phenomenon that is only visible in certain lights?

Sedge Warbler
Sedge Warbler. By Ken Billington
Today on a long rhine below Almondsbury, we got a great close view of a sedge warbler sitting up in a small hawthorn bush and singing away - clearly showing its pale eyestripe, dark striped head and pretty back patterns, and its striking deep red mouth interior.

Raw nature
Along a main road in one of the smartest suburbs of Bristol today, I watched a crow tearing into a grey squirrel corpse lying on the pavement. This piece of raw nature looked quite out of place in such a genteel area...

Nursery colours
I like the children’s nursery quality of hedgerows at the moment: the white froth of cow parsley, weedy blue forget-me-nots, the brilliant brazen blue of green alkanet, innocent pink of red campion and herb robert, all punctuated with glossy yellow buttercups.

Young feeding waders
Avocets. Gill Sapsed
On a recent trip to the Goldcliff Newport Wetlands, I enjoyed seeing how the young avocets waded and swept the shallows with their bills and the young redshanks poked the edges for food, already in perfect mimicry of their elders.

This year seems a very good one for common vetch (which I
Common Vetch. By Derek Harper

understand is generally not that common). At the pools it is everywhere, even forming drifts in places, with its small but intensely magenta ones- or twos- of open flowers powerfully attracting the eye.


In early June I went with a group from the Bristol Ornithological Club to Iceland for a week. We stayed in the whale-watching town of Husavik on the north coast,  inland by Lake Myvatn, famous for its flies and breeding birds, and finally near the famous Blue Lagoon, south of Reykjavik.
General impressions: Landscapes dominated by flat lava fields with huge dark snow-topped escarpments rearing up behind, and fantastical rounded black-and-white patterning from melting snow banks – oddly echoing the patterns of such local creatures as the Barrow’s Goldeneye, Harlequin Ducks, and Orca Whales. Green valleys with bounding meltwater rivers curving through them. Swathes of bright blue lupins and bright yellow dandelions. Wooded areas of poplar, birch and willow, with dwarf birch and willow amongst the lava. Thinly spread population in bright-coloured houses, and masses of wilderness. Fearless Snipe and Whimbrel displaying on posts and the wing; Arctic Skuas agiley wheeling. A background of Snipe drumming, Whimbrel calling curlew-like, and Redwings singing like sedge warblers. Golden Plovers on meadows, showing their dark fronts and backs mantled with spotted gold. Tiny, beautiful, agile Red-necked Phalaropes
Barrows Goldeneye By Julie Evans
darting about on pools. Longtailed Ducks quarrelling and making their dolorous ‘old lady gossiping’ calls. Barrow’s Goldeneye large and smart in spotted black and white.
Nights that never got dark or even dusky.
The Myvatn hotel had its own birds: a Redwings’ nest on the fire escape with four nestlings who fledged while we were there; a White Wagtail pair with a possible nest in the shop eaves; and a pair of Snow Buntings, the male singing beautifully ‘with crystal timbre’ each morning from the rooftop aerial.
Flies on hotel windowsill...
We had our first full-on fly experience: new hatchings forming 8-foot high columns (those ‘leks’ again – advertising for virgin females!), then a dense ground fog of insects a foot deep with an all-pervading hum... the headnets came out and became a permanent presence! (One afternoon they were piling up literally inches deep on the insides of the hotel windowsills, to be hoovered up by the long-suffering staff...)
Some members went a few miles west to where the Laxa river bounds joyfully out of the main lake – perfect Harlequin Duck territory (Iceland is one of their main homes). We sat on kingcup-strewn banks to watch five gorgeously-plumaged males chasing a couple of females through the white water – swimming furiously, flying, diving or scrambling overland, whatever worked to navigate the river falls.
Harlequin Ducks. By Julie Evans
Having yet again missed the Puffins seen by our group who went whale-watching in Husavik - north of Husavik I had my first proper, though brief, Puffin encounter. High cliffs housed hundreds of nesting Fulmars, loving couples and attentive parents whose eggs we could see every now and then as they stood to turn on their nests. Below them on the sea were great rafts of Puffins, too distant for me to see properly. But every now and then one would fly up to the cliffs and perch: so cute and characterful! So upright and colourful! Truly our own northern penguin.
The Blue Lagoon
On our penultimate day we were driven to the our hotel adjacent to
the famous Blue Lagoon hot pools about 30 miles south-west of Reykjavik; again we were in a total lava moonscape next to a large geothermal generating station, with the eerie pale blue natural spa waters just visible through lava rocks. Half the group visited the pool – an amazing, amusing, expensive and luxurious experience which this report writer wouldn’t have missed for anything! Silky milky silica-rich waters, waterfalls and niches, and a big smile on almost every bather’s face...

Iceland ice
For many years I have been profoundly drawn to the extraordinary colours of thick or old  ice – those burning blues and greens seen in deep crevices and icebergs in Antarctica and other far-off places. I had resigned myself to not making a trip to the former – the cost, the long journey, the seasickness, the bucket-list indulgence of it – and to probably never seeing those colours with my own eyes. I contented myself with TV and attending wilderness lectures by polar explorers.
However in Iceland I had two tiny but perfect and unexpected experiences for myself. The first was visiting a small river crossing an unpaved road near Dettafoss waterfall. Its modest banks still held the odd snowbank – something we had seen everywhere we’d travelled, even quite low down. But for some reason this one had a deep crack in it – and it glowed a brilliant bright ice green.
The second was flying back home south-west across Iceland and crossing high wilderness with mighty icecaps. Here on these almost inaccessible tops, snow was melting into small lakes of an unearthly clear light bright turquoise blue.
Just those two small experiences have slaked my thirst for ice colours...

Three little Iceland plants
We encountered three fascinating little plants in Iceland:
Butterwort: At first glance looking very like a clump of violets on the edge of a stream, this pretty little plant is actually a carnivore.  Glands on the rosette of leaves attract then trap and digest insects, whose struggles trigger the leaf edges to roll inwards.
Common Moonwort: A most extraordinary-looking little fern, unlike any other plant, with its fleshy green
Moonwort. ByJason Hollinger
grapelet flower-stem enclosed in a ‘leaf’ made up of fan- (half-moon-) shaped leaflets. Rare in Great Britain, particularly the south, we came across great numbers of them growing straight out of rocky inhospitable sea-side lava fields. It is supposed to have magical / alchemical properties...
Sea Pea: A pretty little pea plant with bright purple flowers that sprawls on or near shingle beaches. Its life strategy turns apparent difficulties into advantages: its seeds can survive up to five years immersion in sea water, and then need the scouring effects of wave erosion to trigger germination. So it scatters its seeds where the tide can reach them and take them out to faraway places – and then ensure they flourish as they are cast back on another shore. Brilliant!

Meadow Vetchling. By Sannse
We saw more gorgeous vetches in the Portbury Wharf nature reserve by the Severn Estuary: bright yellow Meadow Vetchling, intense magenta single flowers of Grass Vetchling, magenta Common Vetch, purplish Tufted Vetch, and masses of tiny pale flowers of Hairy Tare.


Bird feast
Yesterday our neighbours strimmed their back yard which had become very overgrown. When it was shorn it was immediately invaded by a great crowd of sparrows and starlings, including youngsters, who began pulling out an apparently inexhaustible number of invertebrates exposed in the short grass and piles of hay. It was like a smaller, slower version of the small mammals massacres at extra-high tides seen along the Severn Estuary at the start of this year, or the description (by a Bristol Wildlife member) of more small mammal carnage at haymaking time on Lansdown Battlefields above Bath...

Flowers at Lamplighters Nature Reserve
Moth mullein. By SPHL
Lamplighters is a small urban nature reserve on an old industrial site along the mouth of the River Avon and in the shadow of a motorway flyover. Its industrial legacy encourages some unusual plant species. Visiting it yesterday I found:
-  All together in the gravelly areas, an eccentric mix: viper's bugloss, white moth mullein, evening primrose, great mullein, English stonecrop, St John's Wort, teasles, all in with the buddleia which sprawls everywhere.
- Down the path: yellow vetch, tufted vetch, swathes of narrow-leaved everlasting pea and a yellow melilot, hedgerow cranesbill, wild marjoram, rosebay willowherb. The everlasting pea is an extraordinary colour - a combined but slightly muted salmon / shocking pink with details of brown-purple.

A botanist colleague commented: ‘Brilliant mix - "Early Successional" habitat are great for flowers and
Everlasting pea. ByAnneli Salo
invertebrates. Moth Mullein (Verbascum blattaria) is a good find, it isn't a common plant at all.’ Another added, ‘
Moth Mullein is persistent on railway land in urban Bristol and I've never seen it anywhere else so this is a good record! Love Vipers Bugloss too.’
A short time later at Pendower Beach east of Falmouth, Cornwall, I also saw Dark Mullein on the dunes behind the beach – with flowers similar to Moth Mullein but absolutely crammed up a tall stem, and with large soft leaves. They are both very striking and lovely with dark hearts to their flowers.

More Cornish flowers
- Marsh woundwort, Porthcothan marshes – mid-pink flowers.
Pink purslane. By Roger Griffith
- Wall pennywort/navelwort everywhere in Cornish hedges – tall spikes of pale flowers.
- Pink purslane (Claytonia sibirica), scrambling along shady Pendower coast path hedgerows.  Bright green shiny leaves and stems with pale pink veined flowers – ‘very local to damp spots in Devon and Cornwall, not native but very pretty’ said the botanist who identified it for me.
- Hare’s foot clover in the fields along the coast path to Nare’s Head – long, soft, pale pink and fluffy!

Road kill
Stoat. By Tony Wood
Road kill seen on the roads between Cornwall and here: many young rabbits, a grey squirrel flat on its face, a hedgehog, wood pigeons. But avoiding such a fate: a stoat successfully racing across the last lane of the extremely busy A30 four-lane carriageway near Bodwin, having presumably already navigated the other three lanes - woaaa!!

Cowrie shell
I found a small cowrie shell on Pendower Beach, Cornwall and asked, ‘Can anyone indicate how rare this is? As a child we used to vist a remote beach east of Rotheneuf (east of St Malo on the Brittany/Normandy coast), where there were many larger cowries, as well as those long cone shells that look like unicorn horns. So if a tropical current could make it there, I suppose it's not so unlikely it can make it to Cornwall - though I can't remember ever having picked one up in Britain before.’
Live Cowrie. By Christopher Meyer
Colleagues replied: ‘There are two species of cowrie native to the British Isles: Trivia arctica and Trivia monacha.  Both are widespread around our coasts but being small are often overlooked.’ ‘I don't think they are uncommon on full salinity rocky coasts where there are Ascidians to feed on, but they only occur sub-tidally. I've picked up Cowrie shells on the north Welsh Coast  Hebrides. I've actually seen a live Spotted Cowrie (Trivia monarcha) in west Wales when we there has been a very low spring tide.’
I replied, ‘I am a bit stunned by your replies (apart from losing my dream of the Gulf Stream bringing up exotica from tropical climes...). Firstly I have never heard that there are British cowries. Secondly, I have been quite an inveterate beachcomber all my life and round lots of Great Britain's beaches, yet till now that Normandy beach was the only place I'd seen cowries till the Pendower one (which is only about 7mm long and has 3 spots down its back). So if they're that common, where are the shells going? Even if they live subtidally, the shells should still wash up.’ The answer seems to be that being so small and living sub-tidally, their shells are swiftly eroded away...

Oldbury Power Station – Berkeley
Strawberry clover. By Christian Fischer
On a hot day walking along the Severn Estuary and inland between the two power stations, we saw much bird and insect life...
On a farm pond we surprised three young moorhens who jumped onto the low branches of an overhanging hawthorne and balanced there, before scuttling into hiding behind.
Of butterflies we saw marbled whites, meadow browns, gatekeepers, ringlets, blues, small tortoiseshells, comma, peacocks, whites; and small orangey ones that I never get a proper look at… Two male Emperor dragonflies were guarding and duelling on a farm pond.
Inland in Berkeley town, scores of swifts, house martins and swallows were flying and vocalizing; and wherever there were farms with barns, scores of swallows were also sitting on lines and 'conversing' as they begin to do as they think about migration...
On the Severn Way embankment between Oldbury and Berkeley, Strawberry Clover grew. This pink clover's flowers puff up when fruiting, so if you squeeze them they feel just like little polystyrene puffs…

A racing pigeon. By RATAEDL
What appeared to be a young, certainly completely gormless feral/racing pigeon landed on a rooflight just now. It kept pecking at the glass, trying to climber up the glass and slipping back down (comical seen from underneath), and opening its beak for a feeble call. It had a white band on its left leg, orange on the right: was it a racer escaped or let out prematurely?
A colleague replied, ‘Some years back we had a racing pigeon that roosted on my bedroom window sill, and once got into my room and slept on a bookshelf ( much s**t…). This was just after a huge thunderstorm which I assume had disorientated the bird. Anyway, from his ring number and an address stamped on his primaries (main wing feathers) a local contact picked him up and said he would release him with his next flight, and maybe this fine-looking pigeon would finally get back to Manchester (northern England) and his owner. Curious about the bird’s origins, I checked out some Ordinance Survey (map) sheets and found some quite startling similarities between the river shape and general topography local to me, and that of his Northern home…’  - migrating birds are supposed to use topography as well as sun, internal compass and star constellations, to guide them…

New Passage - Pilning Wetland
Small Tortoiseshell. By John Haslam
Down the side lane that accesses the pools away from estuary – thistles in the hedges are bearing huge amounts of thistledown that were full of goldfinches. There were many beautiful butterflies including  comma, peacock, gatekeepers, small copper, whites, speckled wood, meadow browns. One brand-new-looking small tortoiseshell sunning on the ground – looking close up I could admire its patterning including the lovely blue scalloping round the lower wing edges. Of flower there were fleabane, marsh woundwort, and field milk-thistle - that plant with the exuberantly big raggy yellow flowers.
To access the lane one had to pass close to an extremely large bull roaming free on the saltmarsh amongst his wives and calves – a happy but unnerving sight!


Kingfisher pair
Kingfisher. By David Hughes
I was having an early morning swim in the River Severn above Upton yesterday. A kingfisher flew within a couple of feet of my nose, perched, then came back and circled round me. It interacted with another kingfisher who also came and circled round me. Then they perched together by the mouth of a small stream entering the main river.
My guess is they might have had a nest site there and were checking if I was a giant otter or similar hazard...

Young buzzard
Walking meadows in the source area of the River Parrett in Dorset, I heard strange bird calls coming from a tall tree top – so exotic they could almost have been a peacock. I eventually saw the source – a young buzzard calling constantly and making short flights from its perch. It had beautifully softly-coloured plumage of pale buff on a creamy yellow background...

Walking the Parrett
River Parrett. By Rupert Fleetingly

I finished walking the River Parrett this summer - this time I started at its source on a steep watershed surprisingly close to the English Channel in Dorset, and made my way back to Kingston Episcopi where I had previously walked from the mouth on the Bristol Channel. The Parrett Walk is sadly now very blocked and discontinuous in its upper half by irritated landowners, and I had to make many a detour. But what struck me profoundly was the geographical sense that, wherever the river was, there was always the lowest spot in the landscape and all water was flowing to it; and as I walked it I could develop and carry that landscape.Why was that so satisfying? - but it was.


Upton Spiders
The 1940s steel road bridge over the Severn at Upton has separate pedestrian paths each side, divided from the road by a car-height solid ribbed steel wall, with bulkhead lights at intervals in the ribbed sections. Walking along one side at dusk last week, it was noticeable that every lit alcove had a large population of big spiders and their webs, full of the varied insect life of the river with ever more being attracted to the lights; while the dark sections had few or none. A fascinating but somewhat macabre sight for those like me who are frightened of spiders once they reach a certain size...

Baby house martin
Baby House Martin. By Mrs Trellis
At Sea Mills Station on the River Avon this afternoon, there was a still a house martin baby poking its head out of a nest under the station eaves, calling and being fed. This is unusually late – but making up for earlier hard times has been the story of this year!

On a bird walk on the north Somerset levels round Tickenham, we saw something most unusual: corvids - mostly rooks - flying away from the Tickenham Church area with something big and round in their beaks. It turned out they were raiding a walnut tree just behind the church – and we all wanted to know if they were going to try to open the nuts by dropping them from a height, or getting traffic to break them by dropping them on roads, as these clever species are known to do. And if so – where? – how interesting it would be to observe such behaviour.

October, November

Weather report
Clouded Yellow. By Don Smith
After our catastrophically wet winter and early spring, with the beautiful Somerset Levels remaining flooded for months, finally we started to have a fine spring and summer – and since then nature has carried on later than usual as though to compensate. Some birds had multiple broods with fledglings appearing in August or later; the autumn was unusually warm with autumn colouring barely appearing by October; flowers continued to bloom months beyond their usual season. And we continued to see butterflies and dragonflies remarkably late – like this lovely Clouded Yellow…

Fields below Almondsbury
Walking below Almondsbury this mid afternoon, the fields were full of restlessly moving bird flocks,  including wood pigeons, starlings, mixed flocks of rooks, jackdaws and crows, and  gulls. Groups of corvids came in to rest in a large ash tree that overarched the lane, and a great spotted woodpecker persistently tried to perch just below them - and was as persistently chased away... A lovely big sky of piercing blue, gold cumulus and rainclouds, a big rainbow,  all across the levels to the Severn...

Gull skeleton
Bird skeleton. By Svtiste
Today at New Passage, a large gull partial skeleton was washed up on the Severn embankment, including the pelvis, breastbone and wings. I was very struck by the size of the bones: for instance the wing humerus was 15mm diameter, surely similar to the size of a largeish mammal's bones like a medium-large dog?
In contrast I recently cooked a wild rabbit and its bones were incredibly fine - the ribs almost invisibly thin.
A colleague replied, ‘The crucial differences are the bone densities of the two vertebrate groups. Many bird long bones are hollow strengthened by internal cross struts, so even when the linear dimensions appear similar the overall mass is greater in the mammal. I am now comparing a Hare skull with a Herring Gull skull from my collection and the use of actual bone is very economical with the use of struts and braces in the gull but a more solid regime in the mammal even though at first glance they appear of a similar size – the gull is noticeable lighter. Next time you are out, Lois, pick a fight with a Greater Black Backed Gull and then soon after a similar sized dog:  you should find the bird easier to repel!’

Autumn beauties
Rose hips. By Olag
True red: Walking within the Oldbury Power Station reserve along the reed-beds a couple of days ago, individual briar bushes stood up with their long curving ramblers full of hips. In the low autumn sun the hips stood out as the most true brilliant red in an otherwise low-key landscape - to which one’s eyes were irresistibly drawn.
Reed dance: Today at New Passage the reeds along the Chestle Pill estuary were creating a beautiful dance – better than a ballet. As the wind gently blew, one section flowed one way while another behind flowed back again, and then behind were more contrapuntal flows… to watch was soothing and mesmerizing.
I realised that I had written of a similar experience some years ago – and that in itself is striking because it reveals what a rare phenomenon this actually is. The West Country is full of reed-beds and full of wind – but this is only the second time I have seen this perfectly balanced contrapuntal dance where somehow the reeds become harmonically entrained…

Cormorant & eel
Cormorant & eel. By Tim Evanson
Near sunset upstream from Sea Mills today, I watched a cormorant diving and coming up with an eel. It flew to the mud banks, and then as the eel writhed and twisted to escape, the bird constantly dropped it and picked it up again for a firmer grip. Finally the eel must have slightly slackened and in a flash the bird had it lengthways and had swallowed it . And then - oh oh oh - I could SEE the eel writhing on its way down, bulging out the bird's neck from the inside - not a sight I shall quickly forget.

First frost
A late Autumn. By Pete Coslett
Ah, first frost. Up till now an unusual number of common woodland and hedgerow trees and shrubs in more sheltered locations, have been holding on to their autumn-coloured leaves - so at the end of November when usually trees are bare, one could have  quite a full-on autumnal experience. But I expect our first bit of real winter will put a stop to that now...


More bird song thoughts
Further to previous thoughts on the composition of birdsong (particularly blackbirds’), below is a recent letter from New Scientist magazine:
‘…nobody who has listened to Australian butcherbirds can doubt that birds make music. Their varied songs can all be transcribed – both pitch and rhythm – into Western notations. Many Australian composers have used their songs, and Brett Dean (contemporary Australian composer) even incorporated an actual recording in his Pastoral Symphony. Furthermore, butcherbirds use other ‘human’ musical tricks such as adding ornamentation, or singing a melody followed by its inversion. They duet with others, and even with different species such as the Australian magpie. I once got a butcherbird to duet with me by whistling its song back to it. The bird replied, slightly changing the melody. This delightful musical conversation carried on for a minute or two before it flew away.’ (G Cox, New South Wales)

Why bird-watch?
Bird watching hide. By Dave Croker
A young friend recently asked, ‘Why bird-watch?’ I tried to think it through from scratch... most people have a fascination with flight and an envy of creatures that fly, and enjoy vicariously flying with them. (I have heard a convincing theory that all sports are a form of this – either making an object fly, or making ourselves go faster than normal to simulate that feeling…) Unlike most land-bound creatures, birds don’t need to hide away and so are far more visible for our enjoyment, even in towns and all the year round. They’re not mammals but still have a huge cuteness factor. They’re the only animals whose vocalizing we find genuinely, tunefully beautiful (except maybe for some monkeys like gibbons?). They are the only warm-blooded creatures who display colours and patterns of a magnificence to outrival the insect and fish world. Their behaviour is stunningly varied and fascinating, sometimes scarily clever, and often demonstrates what we would consider moral and enlightened behaviour in humans.
'Bird Watching' by Edmund Selous 
Illustration by Joseph Smit
The act of bird watching itself with its seductive mix of alertness and relaxation, I think taps directly into a basic atavistic pleasure from our hunter-gatherer past. And a last suggestion – it appears that physiologically, looking upwards makes the vision-centred areas of the brain over-ride emotional areas, so you can’t look up and feel anxious or angry at the same time - and we spend a lot of time looking up!
A friend added, ‘On a similar theme, and risking sounding like an entry in Pseud's Corner, I've always speculated that perhaps in some sense flying birds helped early humankind to calibrate the as yet inconceivable space between the solid earth, the clouds and the stars. Birds just might have added another measure by which our ancestors defined their place in the vastnesses of landscape, horizon and sky and by doing so made it all somehow less scary.
I'd also celebrate the ability of bird songs and calls to evoke landscapes, seasons and personal memories...!’

Frost at Upton

Another hard night’s frost beautifully decorated plants and leaf litter. All was whitened, with   veins, edgings and ribbing picked out with bolder needles. By some quirk of temperature, frost had also formed larger spangles of ice flat on dead leaf surfaces which glittered exotically.
Meadows flashed with tiny ice fires, and even when the bright sun melted it, by another physical quirk the droplets left were so fine that they continued to flash rainbows through the grass blades.

Mink. By Gwen Thomas
On Monday I saw a mink at Upton upon Severn. At first I thought it was a small black cat whisking out of view on a mooring pontoon, but slightly later it reappeared, walked around the deck, then slipped into the water & swam away. I have reported it to the Worcestershire Wildlife Trust - I am concerned that just down from there was a likely nesting site for local kingfishers. I don't know what the current national or local policy is on mink, if any – but obviously a beautiful animal in its own right.
Upton winter sunrise

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