Around the Town

When I started writing this blog one of the things I promised myself I would do is walk the Nailsea Round.  This is a 9 mile route circling the town on footpaths and other rights of way.  Last Saturday dawned clear and sunny, and as there was nothing in my diary, which is getting increasingly unusual these days, I made a spur of the moment decision to put off my self imposed task of submitting my otter records and give it a go.  Free sunny Saturdays are a rare event, I told myself, and the otter records would still be there when I got back.

Rather than starting the walk at Backwell Lake, as suggested, I decided to pick it up at Towerhouse Wood. Thinking the route would run clockwise, I walked through the wood to the waymark at Towerhouse Lane without consulting the printed booklet.  Of course it turned out to go anticlockwise and in order to follow it as written I had to retrace my steps by about 500 metres.  Not a great start!  I did consider going against the flow but, as someone notorious for her almost non-existent navigational ability, I decided against it and set off again in the opposite direction.  The correct decision as it turned out.  

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At first everything was very familiar and I soon found myself on Nailsea Moor, wet grassland criss crossed with drainage ditches known locally as rhynes, home to nationally important populations of rare water plants and invertebrates, and ‘my’ otters.  I sat down to eat lunch, gazing at the limestone ridge to the north, which made the landscape seem like a miniature version of the Somerset Levels with the Mendip Hills in the background.

I turned south away from the moor, and after crossing a minor road took a path that led across the flank of a hill.  As I stood to take in the view I noticed the unmistakable silhouette of a sparrowhawk soaring above me, it was being mobbed by a house martin, but scarcely seemed to notice.  I wondered if it would turn on it’s tiny aggressor, and why the plucky little bird was taking such a risk.

Stone style typical of the Nailsea area

Stone style typical of the Nailsea area

By the time I crossed the brow of the hill I was in unknown territory, and my walk had become an exploration rather than a routine stroll.  As I walked towards some farm buildings I watched several flocks of starlings, and a noisy cloud of jackdaws rose into the air.  Although it was still pleasantly warm, summer was making way for autumn.  I dropped down a long farm track onto a road and picked up a lovely tree lined lane, almost a hollow way, leading to Morgans Hill, a popular and fiercely defended open space which, to my shame, I had never visited.  

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I had seen Morgans Hill described as ‘adder infested’, so I guessed that it would be quite different from the rhynes and and wet meadows I am familiar with.  I was right, the ground was rough and covered with bracken in places.  It had a wild feel about it, although muffled shouts from nearby playing fields indicated that it was only a stones throw from civilization .  As I followed the route in my guidebook I saw distant wooded hills, and gang mown areas with mature hedges where families were picking blackberries. It was hard to believe that this lovely spot was so close to the town and the flat watery landscape of the moors.

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I made my way to Backwell Lake, another local beauty spot, through a field of lively and very curious young cows, and walked back to Towerhouse Wood across the valley on a series of semi-familiar paths. I passed an old coal mine and hedges which erupted with sparrows as I approached, I have never seen so many, there must have been hundreds!  The final climb back up to my starting point was a revelation.  I came across a flower covered roadside verge which on closer inspection turned out to be a tiny patch of unimproved limestone grassland,  then followed a network of minor paths through dark woods, and spacious back gardens, which I could never have navigated without the well written guide.  By the time I reached Towerhouse Lane, I was very glad that I hadn’t decided to follow the route backwards.

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I dropped down from the woods and wandered home along the riverside path I have walked almost every day with my Labrador, Teazle, and her predecessor.  As I watched the swallows hunting low over the pasture I reflected that, although Nailsea is often considered to be an unremarkable town, a dormitory for Bristol, the countryside that surrounds it is diverse, beautiful, and rich in wildlife, something to be treasured, and fought for if necessary.

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Silver Linings

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It’s easy to become despondent when the wild places you love seem to be under attack from every angle, but the occasional cloud really does have a silver lining.

Last spring our local farmer drained, sprayed and reseeded a wet riverside field that had been left unimproved for many years, and was covered in rushes.  I didn’t blame him, and I still don’t, it makes no economic sense to leave land fallow when it could be providing an income, but it still made me very sad.  Although the land was unproductive in agricultural terms, it was a haven for wildlife and I liked it the way it was.

I watched the progress of the field with interest and it wasn’t long before the grass grew lush and green.  A lot of the wild flowers had gone, but I saw that some of the hardier ‘agricultural weeds’, including rosettes of spear thistle, were returning.

I noticed the thistles again this June as they began to reach for the sky.  They were growing in a long row along the edge of the riverside bund, almost as if they had been planted there deliberately.  I hoped that they would go on to flower, and not be cut or trampled by grazing animals.  Spear thistles may be thought of as weeds, but I think they are underrated.  Their structural spiky forms are beautiful by the standards of even the most exacting gardener, and their pretty purple flowers are an excellent source of nectar.  I was beginning to think of them as a sign that, despite our interference, nature will find a way.  I was lucky, by the end of the month they were beginning to come into flower and, whether by accident or design, they survived an early hay cut.

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I have spent several happy hours since then wandering along the river bank taking photographs of the visiting insects, with my Labrador at my heels looking ever so slightly bored.  On one occasion I was nearly frightened out of my skin by her furious barking, and looked up to see a herd of young cattle charging along the path towards us.  I had been totally oblivious to them, and to the stockman who had just let them into the field.  Fortunately they were more interested in getting to the grass than they were in us, but it took a while for my pulse rate to return to normal.

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The thistles are beginning to go to seed now, and the once lovely, glaucous stems and leaves are sun scorched and wilted.  There are still flowers for the bees, but this morning, as I walked along the river bank, I heard a familiar tinkling sound, and a little charm of goldfinches that had been feeding on the seed heads flew across the field away from me. The changing of the guard!

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Of Dormice and Butterflies

 

View from Draycott Sleights to Glastonbury Tor

View to Glastonbury Tor

One of the best things about butterfly hunting is that it takes you to beautiful places that you might otherwise never visit. Draycott Sleighs is one of them.  Having been told that it was a good place for chalkhill blues, which were high on my ‘to see’ list, I decided to make to most of a sunny Sunday and see if I could find them.

Severe weather warnings had forced me to postpone a dormouse survey the previous day so, in an effort to keep up to date, I persuaded my daughter to help me with a ‘quick’ check in Towerhouse Wood.  The plan was to have a one o’clock lunch and go to Draycott in the afternoon.  As ‘Towerhouse’ dormice tend to be few and far between, I was taken by surprise when a mum and three babies turned up in one of the nest boxes.  My daughter, who had never seen a baby dormouse, was delighted, but by the time we had finished the survey it was nearly half past two and I wondered if I was going to get to Draycott after all.

There were two more in the nest, with a feisty little mum.

There were two more in the nest, with a feisty little mum.

As it was still hot and sunny when we had finished lunch I decided it was worth having a look, even if it was just a recce for a longer visit,

Tracking down a ‘new’ butterfly can involve a fair bit of effort.  In April I spent all day hiking over Fontmell Down with my long suffering husband, looking for Adonis blues.  They eluded us, but we did find a marsh fritillary which was totally unexpected and well worth the journey.

At other times it can seem almost too easy.  I had my first encounter with the legendary, and much sought after, purple emperor when I noticed one attacking the car bonnet as I made my way back from the ladies within a minute or so of arriving at Savernake Forest.

Sunday was one of the easy days.  Almost as soon as I left the car and walked through the gate into the Somerset Wildlife Trust nature reserve, I saw several pale, milky blue, butterflies shimmering in the sunlight.  The more I looked the more I saw, along with common blues, marbled whites and other grassland species.  When I could finally drag myself away, I joined David and the dog for a walk to the top of the steep, flower studded, slope overlooking the Somerset Levels.  The view, from Glastonbury Tor to the sea, was stunning.  Our visit would have been worthwhile for that alone, but I will always remember Draycott Sleights for my magical first experience of  what must be one of our prettiest native butterflies.

Male chalkhill blue

Male chalkhill blue

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Netcott’s Meadow

Between Backwell Lake and the edge of Nailsea is a secret meadow.  When I stumbled upon it nearly ten years ago, at the beginning of my adventure as a naturalist, I wasn’t sure if I was allowed in, but I slipped through the gate and, as there was a path through the long grass, I decided it wouldn’t do any harm to explore.  I was amazed by what I found.   The memory is rather hazy now, but I can clearly recall the orchids, more than I had ever seen in one place, and blue butterflies.

I now know that the meadow is a nature reserve managed by Avon Wildlife Trust.  It has been chosen as a Coronation Meadow to mark the 60th anniversary of the Coronation.  A week or so ago I was asked if I would consider taking on the role of Voluntary Warden.  It was an offer I couldn’t refuse!

I have been back many times since my initial discovery, but on Wednesday afternoon, when I went to take stock, I felt a sense of ownership and looked with new eyes.  It was hot and sunny.  The first thing that struck me was the noise of the grasshoppers.  I could hear them all around me, not just individuals, but an enveloping blanket of sound.  As I stepped forward scores of them jumped from under my feet, I had never seen so many in one place before.  After spending ten minutes or so trying to photograph them, I realised I had neither the time nor the patience, and turned my attention to the damselflies which turned out to be far more co-operative.  They weren’t quite as numerous as the grasshoppers, but were still there in vast numbers. I recognised two varieties, blue tailed and common blue, but spotting a rarity amongst them, even if I had the identification skills, would be like looking for a needle in a haystack!  In addition to the damselflies there were three impressive dragonflies engaged in aeriel  manoeuvres overhead.  I am clearly going to have to get to grips with this beautiful group of insects! I’m more familiar with butterflies, there were no blues on this occasion, but I saw meadow browns, skippers, a marbled white and a distant comma.

The reserve is quite small, only about six acres, but it is very varied, and has damp patches caused by springs.  It is bounded by mature hedges, and there is a small pond on the west border.  As I walked round I recognised knapweeds, ladies bedstraw, yellow rattle, ox-eyed dasies, fleabane, and drifts of meadowsweet, but there were many flowering plants I couldn’t identify, and I didn’t have a clue about the grasses!  I have wanted to improve my botany for some time, and there is certainly plenty to keep me occupied here.  It will be a steep learning curve, but I will have Avon Wildlife Trust and knowledgable friends to guide me, and as they say you are never too old…

I’m looking forward to the journey!

 

 

Small Wonders

Bee and flower

 

There’s a dead tree stump in the hedge by our drive.

Old tree stump - home to hundreds of tiny bees

Dead tree stump next to our drive which has been left untouched for over 20 years. The plant growing up the side is a prostrate, sprawling type of campanula. Rather untidy, but I have always tolerated it because it is loved by pollinators.

It has been there for years, and until a hot sunny day last week, I hadn’t paid it much attention. I don’t know what made me look that afternoon, but I noticed the stump was surrounded by a haze of insects.  At first I thought they must be flying ants, but it seemed a bit early, and they didn’t have the right ”jizz’.  I got down on my hands and knees for a closer inspection and was amazed to see hundreds of tiny black bees crawling in and out of the woodworm holes.

Tiny black bees approaching the tree stump.

 

Woodworm holes, now home to bees

Close up of ash stump showing the wood worm holes that are now homes for campanula carpenter bees.

I found my insect field guide and, for once, was able to identify them almost instantly.  It helped that knowledgeable friends had taught me that there were many, many, types of bees, not just the stripy fuzzy ones, so I had a good idea of what I was looking for.  The book only gave me the scientific name, Chelostoma campanularum, but it did tell me that they lived in wood worm holes and specialised in campanula flowers, which I have in abundance in my garden.  A quick search of the internet told me that these fascinating little insects had the far more user friendly English name of campanula (or harebell) carpenter bees.  I also learned that they couldn’t turn round inside their holes so went in tail first to off-load pollen and head first to disgorge nectar.

I went back outside with my camera and, sure enough, nearly every campanula flower seemed to have a little black bee inside it busily gathering pollen, and I managed to see, but not photograph, them reversing into holes to deposit their loads.

Bee collecting pollen from a campanula flower

Close up of a bee in a campanula flower

I won’t ever look at that tree stump in the same way again, and am very glad that we never thought to remove it.

 

 

Dormice – Up Close and Personal!

First dormouse of the year

 

Until last Thursday my husband had never seen a dormouse, which is why, when my May survey was due, I decided it was about time I took him with me instead of one of my usual assistants.

Things didn’t bode well on the day when I was woken in the early hours by torrential rain rattling on the roof.  I lay listening for what seemed like an age, and by the time I finally fell asleep I had resigned myself to postponement and a mountain of paperwork.  I’m not worried about getting wet, but dormice fur isn’t particularly waterproof, and if they escape and get soaked with rain it can lead to hypothermia.

Miraculously, by the time we had eaten breakfast there was a window in the weather, so we were able to go ahead. I survey two sites for the National Dormouse Monitoring Programme.  Towerhouse Wood, behind my house, where it all started, and Jubilee Stone Wood in nearby Backwell.  We went to Backwell as the dormice in Towerhouse Wood  rarely turn up in boxes until late summer.  Towerhouse was pencilled in for the following day.

Dormouse boxes look very much like standard bird boxes, but the hole is in the back and wooden battens separate it from the trunk of the tree so the dormouse can slip in easily.

Dormouse Box

If the design was intended to keep birds out it is singularly ineffective.  Every year about a third of my boxes are occupied by blue tits or great tits, wrens seem to like them too, and I have even seen one used by a nuthatch.  I love the idea that they support birds as well as dormice, and it doesn’t seem to matter, as the dormice move in once the birds have moved out.

The boxes are fixed at chest hight, for the benefit of the surveyors rather than the dormice.  Checking dozens of boxes every month from April to October with ladders would be very time consuming, and a health and safety nightmare!  The checking procedure is to approach the box very quietly and carefully block the hole with a duster.  The lid is then opened a crack, and if there is any nesting material the box is taken down and opened inside a large plastic bag.  As dormice are fully protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act, this requires a licence which involves quite a high level of training.

The first box we opened  contained two wood mice, which was a promising start.  A few boxes later I thought we had found some more.  I could see the brown leaves typical of a wood mouse nest, but when I put the box in a plastic bag and removed the lid there were a few fresh green ones as well.  Underneath the leaves was a beautiful woven structure a bit smaller than a tennis ball.  This was a dormouse nest, and it was occupied.

Dormouse nest

The dormouse was curled up into a ball, so still you could scarcely see it breathing, and surprisingly cool to the touch.  It was in a deep, energy conserving, sleep called torpor.  Dormice can go into torpor at any time of year, not just during hibernation, and in this sleepy state, they are nothing short of delightful.

Totally oblivious

Most people think of dormice as being permanently dozy, but when they are wide awake they are the personification of ‘bright eyed and bushy tailed’ and can move like quicksilver.  Torpid dormice are much easier to handle, until it comes to determining their sex.  I always feel I am subjecting them to a gross indignity as I gently try to move the tail and unwrap them enough to see the relevant parts (not easy at the best of times, especially when you need new glasses).  This lovely creature stirred slightly, got a good grip on my thumb and settled down comfortably to continue her nap.  It resulted in the type of photograph that makes the dormouse, although rarely seen, one of the most beloved  of British mammals.

Still asleep, but with a very tight grip on my thumb

During the course of the morning we found another torpid dormouse covered in a thin layer of green leaves.  I joked that it must be a boy because it was too lazy to make a proper nest, it was!

Torpid Dormouse in box with leaves

In addition to the wood mice, and dormice, we found ten yellow-necked mice.  There were two boxes with two in each, and one with six youngsters which exploded out like little rockets, and took several minutes to calm down enough for me to count them.

Juvenile Yellow-Necked Mice

Although they have an unfortunate reputation for biting the unwary I have a soft spot for yellow-necks.  They are handsome, slightly larger, relatives of the wood mouse distinguished by a yellow band across their neck and chest.  I love them for their feistiness and their glossy chestnut coats.

Yellow-Necked Mice

 

It’s over five years since I earned my dormouse licence and I still feel enormously privileged to work with these beautiful animals.  It is always a pleasure to give someone their first glimpse, and it was particularly special to share this most successful of dormouse days with my husband.

Milkmaids and Butterflies

Male orange tip butterfly on a cuckoo flower

Between the river and the wood on my patch there is a five acre paddock of rush pasture.  In all the time I have lived here it has never been cultivated.  It floods every winter, and in all but the driest of summers there are still marshy areas with pools of standing water.  Most people walk past along the raised river bank without paying much attention, but to me it is a secret paradise.  One morning last summer there were so many house martins hunting over the rushes that their white rumps looked like a blizzard of snowflakes.

In the winter snipe hide amongst the soft rush, rarely giving themselves away unless accidentally flushed.  Mallard dabble in the flood water, and I have even seen flocks of teal flying overhead on bitterly cold days.  Black headed gulls can look ethereal wheeling over the water with wintry sun on their backs.

From late April the rhynes bounding the field are outlined by the vibrant yellow of bargeman’s cabbage (more prosaically known as wild turnip) and the grass between the rushes is studded with delicate pink flowers.  These are ladies smock, also called cuckoo flowers because they appear with the first cuckoo, or milkmaids.

Milkmaids are brassicas, members of the cabbage family.  Along with Jack by the hedge, or garlic mustard, they are food plants for the caterpillars of one of our most beautiful spring butterflies, the orange tip.  The butterflies overwinter as a chrysalises and in April the adults begin to emerge.  Both sexes have beautiful mossy green camouflage patterns on their lower underwings, but only males have the distinctive orange wing tips which warn predators that they are distasteful.

Male orange tip showing mossy pattern on underwings

After mating females search out food plants along hedges and woodland margins laying eggs under flower buds.  Each egg is laid on a separate plant to prevent the cannibalistic offspring from eating each other.  The growing caterpillars are well camouflaged as they look just like the seed pods they feed on.  When they are fully grown they leave their food plants to pupate on bushes and tall vegetation where they remain until the adult butterflies emerge the following spring.

Orange tip butterfly egg laid on garlic mustard

I have spent many happy hours sitting amongst the soft rush and milkmaids trying to photograph orange tips.   They rarely settle for long, and I have had limited success, but I will keep trying.  This year I will also be searching for eggs and caterpillars in the hope of finding some to take home to raise for myself.  It may be a childlike thing to do, but I like to believe there is still a child in each of us.

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