Harris Garden Tree Walk – 9 September 2017

Sunny periods and heavy thundery showers had been forecast for the afternoon of 9th September – and we got them both – when 19 members led by Renée Grayer went for a tree walk in the Harris Garden, the former botanical garden of Reading University. Renée handed out a list of some 50 tree species that we were going to see and she explained that the garden dates from 1975 just after the Botany Department moved from the London Road site to the new Plant Science Laboratories adjacent to the garden. In the second half of the 19th and first half of the 20th century the area had been part of the Wilderness Estate, one of the leaseholds into which Whiteknights had been divided when the Marquess of Blandford, who owned the whole estate, had become bankrupt. The group were shown a number of veteran trees planted in the former Wilderness estate in the 19th century, now tall and majestic, including Swamp Cypress Taxodium distichum, Caucasian Alder Alnus subcordata, Giant Redwood or Wellingtonia Sequoiadendron giganteum and Himalayan Cedar Cedrus deodara. There are also huge Turkey Oaks Quercus cerris and other species of oak that probably date from that period. We also saw unusual trees which had been planted more recently, some of them dedicated to the memory of university staff and students, including Judas Tree Cercis siliquastrum, Wheel Tree Trochodendron aralioides and Dawn Redwood Metasequoia glyptostroboides. Other trees had been planted for their interesting bark, such as Paper-bark Maple Acer griseum, Tibetan Cherry Prunus serrula and Hybrid Strawberry-tree Arbutus x andrachnoides, or autumn colours of the leaves, including Sweet Gum Liquidambar styraciflua, Persian Ironwood Parrotia persica and Tulip Tree Liriodendron tulipifera. The spiny trunks of Persian Honey-locust trees Gleditsia caspica and spiny leaves of the Monkey-puzzle Araucaria araucana were also admired by the group. One area of the garden is dedicated to unusual conifers and there we saw Tiger-tail Spruce Picea torano, Serbian Spruce Picea omorika and Cedar of Lebanon Cedrus libani. At that moment the pitch-black sky that had been approaching us fast started precipitating, so that we sheltered under the dense branches of the Himalayan White Pine Pinus wallachiana, which bears bundles of five needles instead of bundles of two as found in our native Scots Pine. But the rain, accompanied by hail and thunder, became so heavy that we still became soaking wet. When the rain had subsided some 15 minutes later we looked at two more trees, probably the most interesting conifers in the Harris Garden, which had been planted quite recently. They were the Wollemi Pine Wollemia nobilis and Dawn Redwood Metasequoia glyptostroboides. Both trees were only known from fossils, millions of years old, and thought to be extinct. Wollemi Pine was discovered in 1994 in the Wollemi National Park in Australia where about a hundred specimens were growing in a few steep-sides gorges which were hardly accessible. Since then the tree has been propagated successfully and distributed to botanical gardens all over the world. Now they are even available in garden centres. Dawn Redwood was found in China in the 1940s, but only one wood comprising some 5000 specimens is left in the wild. This tree has also been successfully propagated and has been planted widely since, especially in China itself.

Report by Renée Grayer

Pictures by Laurie Haseler

The Holies, Streatley – 27 August 2017

Jan Haseler led a walk round The Holies, National Trust land at Streatley, on the hot afternoon of Sunday 27 August. The walk started out through a cool stretch of woodland, where Soft Shield-fern was noted, then Pale St John’s-wort was seen in a band of scrubby woodland. The route led out into a large steep field of fine chalk grassland which had been used as a motor-cycle scrambling track in the 1980s. It is still possible to see the outlines of the former scrambling tracks and it was interesting for the botanists to note the differences in vegetation which are still detectable there. Flowers here included Wild Marjoram, Agrimony, Small Scabious, Eyebright, Common Restharrow, Common Bird’s-foot Trefoil, Wild Basil, Harebell, Dwarf Thistle and Fairy Flax. There were many Meadow Brown butterflies on the wing, together with a few Small Heaths, Brimstones, Common Blues and a Lesser Treble-bar moth. The tiny longhorn moth Nemaphora metallica was spotted on a Field Scabious flower head. Carline Thistle and Autumn Gentian appeared to be favouring the former scramble tracks. Basil Thyme and Pale Toadflax were found on bare soil patches on one of the scramble tracks. The walk continued on the other side of the valley, where there were some very big patches of Devil’s-bit Scabious just coming into flower, with many bees and a Small Tortoiseshell butterfly nectaring there. Clustered Bellflower, Yellow-wort and Blue Fleabane were added to the flower count. Field Madder and Long-stalked Crane’s-bill were growing by the trackway at the bottom of the valley. Some of the group crossed the valley bottom to inspect the enormous seed heads of a number of Woolly Thistle plants.

The route then led through a gate into the next field of steep chalk grassland. More Basil Thyme flowers were found in cracks in the tarmac of the old zig-zag road which climbs steeply up the hillside. Hoary Plantain, Wild Mignonette and Salad Burnet were seen here. Contouring round the hillside, the first of the Adonis Blue butterflies was seen, a stunning turquoise blue male. In all, about 8 male Adonis Blues and 1 worn male Chalkhill Blue butterflies were seen. There were a number of the brown female butterflies, but without good close-up views, it was hard to be certain whether they were Adonis or Chalkhill Blues. A  Hummingbird Hawkmoth flew down the slope, nectaring on various flowers on the way. Squinancywort and Common Rock-rose were seen here. In the top corner of the field was an area which had been cleared of scrub and scraped bare about 10 years ago. It had been recolonised by an interesting selection of chalk grassland plants, including Chiltern Gentian, Pale Toadflax, Bladder Campion and Devil’s-bit Scabious. Another gate led back to the scramble track field. Next to the gate was a large Whitebeam covered in large still-green berries. On another of the former scramble tracks, a patch with more than 100 Autumn Gentians was found.

Pictures by Rob Stallard and Laurie Haseler

Continue reading The Holies, Streatley – 27 August 2017

Aston Rowant – 5 August 2017

Jan Haseler led a walk round the southern Bald Hill section of Aston Rowant National Nature Reserve on Saturday 5 August. The walk started from the Cowleaze Wood car park under dark threatening skies and with a strong north-westerly wind. The route led diagonally down across the very steep south-west facing side of Bald Hill. At the top of the hill were Field and Small Scabious, Greater and Common Knapweed, Large Thyme, Marjoram, Wild Basil, Bifid Hemp-nettle and Agrimony. Continuing down the hillside, there were many gentian spikes which were not yet in flower. There was some debate as to whether these were Autumn or Chiltern Gentians, with the majority thought to be the latter. Carline and Stemless Thistle, Squinancywort, Yellow-wort, Lady’s Bedstraw, Eyebright, Quaking-grass, Fairy Flax and a Frog Orchid were amongst the sightings here. Then the clouds moved on, the sun came out and the butterflies started to appear. Silver-spotted Skippers were quite numerous and if they perched in a suitable position, attempts were made to separate the males and females. The females had darker, more contrasting wing edges, while the males had a dark sex brand on the forewing. Silvery-blue male Chalkhill Blue butterflies were unmistakable, while the dark brown females had chequered black and white wing margins. Common Blue and Brown Argus butterflies were also seen here, together with a single Dark Green Fritillary and a number of Six-spot Burnet moths.

The route continued through a gateway into the western section of Bald Hill. The lower part of the field was sheltered from the wind, and the carpet of Marjoram was alive with butterflies. Brimstone, Red Admiral, Small Tortoiseshell and Small Heath were added to the butterfly tally here, while Common Gromwell, Clustered Bellflower, Thyme-leaved Speedwell, Juniper, Hoary Plantain and Hawkweed Oxtongue were amongst the plant sightings. On the walk back, Common Rock-rose and another Frog Orchid were seen.

Pictures by Rob Stallard and Martin Mitchell

Continue reading Aston Rowant – 5 August 2017

Mothing at Upper Basildon – 29 July 2017

On Saturday 29 July, members gathered for a ‘Mothing and Summer Party’ at Peter & Susan Twitchett’s house (Coromandel) in Upper Basildon.  Despite having chosen an evening when it didn’t stop raining until about 2.30 AM, the party went remarkably well and Peter & Susan could not have been more hospitable.  An excellent selection of food and drink was consumed in a marquee in the garden, while moth traps belonging to Paul Black, Norman Hall and Jan Haseler were running outside in the wet.  Paul also ran a moth lamp over a sheet under a gazebo and was thus able to provide a constant supply of dry moths for examination in the marquee. We could not gather in groups around bare MV mothing lamps as we have done on all previous RDNHS mothing evenings because it is too dangerous in rainy conditions – and nobody likes getting wet.

By Sunday morning the rain had gone, so the 10 or so members who came early to view the overnight catch were very lucky – especially as Paul Black had stayed up all night and had caught many species of moths that had not been seen in the evening and were not present in other people’s traps in the morning. Coincidentally, the total number of species recorded this time (106) was exactly the same as it had been on 22 July 2006, eleven years ago, on our only previous RDNHS mothing evening at Coromandel. Even more surprising were the differences between the two catches considering that their calendar dates only differed by 7 days. Just over half the moths we recorded this time were new to Coromandel, which is really quite astonishing.  It was as though the moths thought that late July was in Summer in 2006, but in Autumn in 2017. Some of us thought the same.

More detailed statistics are in the following table:

Micros Pyrales Macros Total
22/07/2006 21 18 67 106
29/07/2017 15 16 75 106
Additions 2017 9 7 38 54

Moths seen included Rusty-dot Pearl and Rush Veneer (both of which are migrant micros), Clay Triple-lines, Least Carpet, Small Scallop, White-spotted Pug, Maple Prominent, both Hoary and Scarce Footman, Dark Sword-grass, Scarce Bordered Straw and Dark Spectacle. The highlight of these was perhaps the Scarce Bordered Straw.  This moth used to occur only as a migrant. Although large numbers of them came into the country in 2006, only very few have been seen since then.

Report by Norman Hall

Pictures by Rob Stallard, Les Finch and Jan Haseler

Continue reading Mothing at Upper Basildon – 29 July 2017

Dry Sandford Pit – 16 July 2017

On a fine Sunday afternoon, 11 members and friends took part in a walk around the BBOWT reserve Dry Sandford Pit near Abingdon, Oxfordshire. The walk was led by Alan Parfitt, who explained that the limestone cliffs here date back as long ago as the Jurassic Period. The nature reserve comprises many different habitats such as chalk grasslands, fens, ponds, streams and woods, reflected by the many different species of plants, insects and birds found here. We soon saw a variety of chalk-loving plants such as Wild Basil Clinopodium vulgare, Wild Mignonette Reseda lutea, Musk Thistle Carduus nutans, Agrimony Agrimonia eupatoria, Wild Parsnip Pastinaca sativa, Common Centaury Centaurium erythraea (including a plant with white flowers) and Hairy St John’s-wort Hypericum hirsutum. A bog provided still more interesting species such as the orchids Marsh Helleborine Epipactus palustris, mainly in fruit but some still flowering, Marsh Fragrant-orchid Gymnadenia densiflora and Common Twayblade Neottia ovata. We heard a Reed Warbler Acrocephalus scirpaceus singing, but could not see it, as is usually the case. In another field with chalk plants we saw the beautiful Greater Knapweed Centauria scabiosa, Lady’s Bedstraw Galium verum, Dark Mullein Verbascum nigrum, Salad Burnet Poterium sanguisorba, Field Scabious Knautia arvensis, Burnet-saxifrage Pimpinella saxifraga and the Woolly Thistle Cirsium eriophorum. One specimen of this magnificent thistle was nearly in flower and there were several enormous leaf rosettes. Many species of butterfly were fluttering in the chalk grasslands, including Comma Polygonia c-album, Red Admiral Vanessa atalanta, Gatekeeper Pyronia tithonus, and we heard the characteristic sound of a Corn Bunting Emberiza calandra. A wet area followed with Water Figwort Scrophularia auriculata, Marsh Thistle Cirsium palustre, Common Fleabane Pulicaria dysenterica and Water Mint Mentha aquatica. Finally we entered a more woody area with Dog’s Mercury Mercurialis perennis, Lords-and-Ladies Arum maculatum with red fruits, Red Currant Ribes rubrum, Common Spotted-orchid Dactylorhiza fuchsia (mainly in fruit), Remote Sedge Carex remota, Wavy Bitter-cress Cardamine flexuosa, Rosebay Willowherb Chamerion angustifolium, Ploughman’s Spikenard Inula conyza and the invasive alien Snowberry Symphoricarpos albus.

Another BBOWT Nature Reserve, Parsonage Moor, is in walking distance from Dry Sandford Pit, so part of our group walked over there after the visit to Dry Sandford Pit. Prickly Lettuce Lactuca serriola was growing near the gate of the reserve and in the bog we found Water Mint Mentha aquatica again, Black Bog-rush Schoenus nigricans and a large plant of the rare Marsh Lousewort Pedicularis palustris. Lots of leaves of Grass-of-Parnassus Parnassia palustrus seem to be present, but no plant was flowering yet. Because of an approaching pitch-black sky, we did not stay long in Parsonage Moor, so that we could be back in the cars before the heavens opened.

Report by Renée Grayer

Pictures by Rob Stallard

Continue reading Dry Sandford Pit – 16 July 2017

Bee walk at The Vyne – 24 June 2017

15 people joined a bee walk led by Trevor Smith at The Vyne, a property of the National Trust, on Saturday 24th June. He started in the walled garden, discussing the life cycle of common bees and looking at the holes in the mortar which mining bees had used earlier in the year. Small numbers of Red-tailed Bumblebee Bombus lapidarius and workers of either the Buff-tailed or White-tailed Bumblebee B. terrestris/lucorum, (very difficult to separate in the field) and the Common Carder Bee B. pascuorum were seen on Sweet William and Cornflower and also on White Clover in the cut grass. The comfrey bed outside the walled garden contained several Common Carder Bees, showing the wide variation in size and colour range within the single species.

We moved onto an area of long grasses with wild flowers and found the Garden Bumblebee B. hortorum on Red Clover and the Red-tailed Bumblebee and Common Carder on Common Bird’s-foot-trefoil and Common Knapweed, and a female Brown-footed Leafcutter Bee Megachile versicolor flying over the grass. The herbaceous borders on both sides of the house were good hunting grounds with Red-tailed Bumblebee, Garden Bumblebee, Common Carder, a male White-tailed Bumblebee  and the workers of Buff-tailed/White-tailed Bumblebees abundant on salvia, nepeta, Yellow Scabious and heuchera.  A male solitary Harebell Carpenter Bee Chelostoma campanularum was seen on campanula. Males of the Vestal Cuckoo Bee Bombus vespalis were around in both herbaceous borders, feeding on salvias. The queens of this species take over the nests of B. terrestris, lurking near the nest to pick up the scent of the nest and then killing the queen and laying their own eggs, which will then be looked after by the B. terrestris workers.

Report by Tricia Marcousé

Pictures by Kim Andrews

Otmoor – 29 May 2017

David Morris led a joint field trip with the Oxfordshire Flora Group at Otmoor on Monday 29 May. The walk started from the RSPB car park, where Turtle Dove and Grasshopper Warbler were heard. First destination was the wonderful SSSI meadow next to the Ministry of Defence firing range. On the way, a ditch was passed with Greater Burnet-saxifrage and Celery-leaved Buttercup and David found Spreading Hedge-parsley near the rifle butts. The meadow itself was superb, with a purple haze of Meadow Thistle, together with the pink of Ragged Robin and the yellow of Meadow Buttercup. Close to the gateway were flowering Dyer’s Greenweed, Heath Spotted-orchid, Common Meadow-rue and Pepper Saxifrage, plus leaves of Saw-wort, Devil’s-bit Scabious, Betony, Great Burnet and Sneezewort. A darkish-blue violet was identified as Heath Dog-violet. A significant proportion of the abundant Meadow Thistles were affected by a white fungus. Amongst the sightings in the damper ditches were Tubular Water-dropwort, Marsh Stitchwort, Marsh Pennywort, Marsh Ragwort, Tufted Forget-me-not and the nationally-scarce Downy-fruited Sedge. Paler blue violets were identified as hybrids between Heath Dog-violet and Fen Violet. A Turtle Dove called from the top of an isolated Oak and a Cuckoo was heard. Then good numbers of the white-flowered Fen Violet were found. This meadow on Otmoor holds most of its UK population. It has not been recorded for several years from its two other British sites, Woodwalton Fen and Wicken Fen. Several Four-spotted Chaser dragonflies were spotted down in the grass.

The afternoon was spent at The Pill, an area of grassland with shallow pools, on MOD land in the danger zone beyond the rifle range. The pools are protected from the agriculturally-polluted waters of the River Ray by an extensive buffer zone of grassland and they contain a number of rare wetland plants. Sightings here included Water-violet, Frogbit, Lesser Marshwort, Greater Bladderwort and Lesser Water-plantain. A Marsh Harrier flew across from the adjacent RSPB reserve and a large hairy Garden Tiger caterpillar was climbing through the vegetation above the water in one of the ponds.

Pictures by Laurie Haseler

Continue reading Otmoor – 29 May 2017

Dawn Chorus at Woolhampton – 7 May 2017

A hard core of 7 members braved the 5am rendezvous for a dawn chorus walk at the Rowbarge, Woolhampton, led by Ken and Sarah White. The cool dawn and overcast sky were challenging, but the rewards were great. For birds the spring is all about the breeding season, and the breeding seasons is all about male song birds singing to defend their claimed territory on the one hand AND to advertise their presence to potential mates on the other. The car park tally was a good start; over and above the mass chorus came the clear piping notes of a Song Thrush contrasted by the mellow improvising tones of a Blackbird. A bat was hunting over the water by the nearby bridge.

We set off to circumnavigate the nearby gravel pit (called by fishermen the Rowney Predator Lake), passing varied marginal vegetation including Phragmites reedbeds, willow & alder trees, patches of scrub and the lush surrounds of the river Kennet. We collectively identified 34 species in the 1.5 hour walk, 29 of them by song or call. The soft “3-blind-mice” of a Reed Bunting was drowned out by the scratchy scribble of a newly arrived & excited Whitethroat. Trilling Wrens accompanied us nearly all the way round, rhythmical monotones from Reed Warblers filled the reedy patches, but the string of singing highlights included velvety & liquid bursts from Blackcap, babbling Garden Warblers and outrageous “knock-you-over-sideways” deliveries from Cetti’s Warbler. A distant Cuckoo was detected by some, and the visual delights included pairs of Pochards and Oystercatchers, not to forget the proud Canada Geese with their large brood of very young goslings.

The icing on the cake however had to be the svelte and gorgeous Grey Wagtail that was waiting for us right at the end of the walk near the canal lock gates; no sign of life in the Rowbarge so I was glad that we had got up an extra 10 minutes early to do some flasks for the final treat and justified reward of a steaming hot cuppa and biscuits for everyone there.

Report by Ken White

Picture by Ken White

Moor Copse – 30 April 2017

Michael Keith-Lucas led a well-attended walk at the Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire Wildlife Trust’s Moor Copse reserve near Tidmarsh on the cloudy morning of Sunday 30 April. The first part of the walk was along the banks of the River Pang and through the damp woodland of Hogmoor Copse, which is regularly flooded by the alkaline waters of the Pang. Along the river bank, sightings included Hemlock Water-dropwort, Comfrey, abundant Large Bittercress, white-flowered Dewberry, Red Currant and Hop. Goldilocks Buttercup, Solomon’s-seal and the leaves of Common Spotted-orchid were found along Vinula Ride. After crossing the bridge over Pang, the route led through Park Wood, which lies on a drier gravel terrace. Amongst the sea of Bluebells were the white flowers of Greater Stitchwort and Yellow Archangel. Wood Speedwell, Wood Spurge, Bush Vetch and Three-nerved Sandwort were also seen. In a corner of the wood was a fine display of Early-purple Orchids, with a few pink and white specimens mixed amongst the commoner purple flower spikes. A black and yellow Wasp Beetle was spotted in the vegetation beside the path.

The walk continued across 5-Acre Field, where Bulbous Buttercup and Crosswort were in flower, and into Moor Copse.  Wood Anemone, Yellow Pimpernel and more Early-purple Orchids were seen here. The route then led out onto meadows. The scratchy song of Whitethroats was heard. Cowslips were flowering on the drier ridges and the leaves of Pepper Saxifrage were identified. Jointed Rush, Water Avens, Cuckooflower, Great Burnet and Marsh Marigold were found in the wetter parts of the meadows. The return route led past the ruins of Sparkmoor Cottage, where flowering Star-of-Bethlehem was found. Finally, there was a mass of white-flowered Ramsons on the banks of the Pang near the car park.

Pictures by Rob Stallard

Continue reading Moor Copse – 30 April 2017

Upper Inhams Copse – 8 April 2017

Jan Haseler led a walk across Silchester Common and round the Hampshire & Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust’s Upper Inhams Copse reserve on Saturday 8 April. It was a warm, sunny day and a wall of scent from the Gorse hit people as they started out across the Common. The Trust’s Dexter cattle were grazing nearby. There were pink flowers on the Bilberry plants, Willow Warblers were singing and a bright green beetle flew up from path. The route crossed two stream valleys, then came to a wooded section where the leaves of Lily-of-the-valley were coming up beside the path. Continuing down into a wooded stream valley, a stand of leafless Aspens looked pale and skeletal. Spring flowers here included Wood-sorrel, Primrose, Common Dog-violet, Wood Anemone, Solomon’s-seal and Greater Stitchwort.

At the far side of the Common, the walk continued down into Upper Inhams Copse. At a damper stretch where a stream crossed the path, Bugle, Yellow Pimpernel, Moschatel and a small frog were spotted. Some of the group went into the adjoining damp meadow, where the pale feathery leaf spikes of Tubular Water-dropwort could be seen in one of the wet ditches. Marsh Marigolds were in flower, an Orange-tip egg was spotted on a Cuckooflower plant and a Large Red Damselfly was seen. The walk continued round the copse. Although it was several weeks before their usual flowering time, Bluebells were beginning to create a carpet of blue. The leaves of Pignut and more Solomon’s-seal plants were seen. Speckled Wood, Holly Blue and Brimstone butterflies were flying in the sunshine. A little way back from the path, a number of deep pink Oxalis flowers were found, which sparked a debate as to whether they were native or garden escapes. Subsequently, Tony Mundell, the Botanical Recorder for North Hampshire, confirmed that they were a rare colour form of the native Wood-sorrel Oxalis acetosella. The return route forded the stream, then followed the track back up through Lord’s Wood to Impstone Road.

Pictures by Rob Stallard