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

Nettlebed – 25 March 2017

On a fine sunny day 10 members joined Lesley Dunlop to explore the geology of Nettlebed Common.  Lesley explained that on most of the Common the sands and clays of the Lambeth Group overlie the chalk bedrock.  These remnants of a more extensive deposit were deposited about 60 million years ago in a warm estuary.  They provided raw materials for the brick and pottery industry and there are many ponds in the former clay diggings formed because the impermeable clay prevents rainwater from draining into the chalk below. The Lambeth Group sands and clays are acidic so in more sandy areas the acid drainage /groundwater can pass through fissures in the chalk beneath and eventually dissolve enough to produce a sinkhole.  Our figure of 8 route started along The Green, after a short distance we turned into the wood to view an example of this.  A large 4m x 5m sinkhole had opened up about 3 years ago after a wet January.  The boundary of the chalk layer was visible, and some bricks on one side suggested the hole may have opened up previously and been filled.  Other sinkholes have appeared in local gardens. We then headed back and up Chapel Lane;  green alkanet, gorse and primroses were in flower.  Continuing along the track we saw some of the ponds left after clay extraction for the brickworks, and recently cleared of overhanging vegetation.  Our first Brimstone of the day was spotted. Heading west we crossed Mill Road and saw sand and clay workings alongside the track.

After crossing the Recreation Ground we reached Priest Hill, an area with Nettlebed gravels and interglacial organic silts which is a SSSI for its geological significance.  Lesley explained that this was a chalk landscape up to 80 million (m) years ago; and there is no chalk younger than this here although the end of the Cretaceous period was 65m years ago – there is a 20m year gap.  This may be because this area had been uplifted above sea level.  The exposed surface would then have been subject to weathering.  The Lambeth Beds were deposited in the estuarine environment which followed. There is no other geological record in this area for another 50m years.  The gravel deposits are dated at 2m years ago.  Although there was glaciation as far south as Aylesbury there was no ice cover here, just permafrost, so the water passing over the surface would have caused some erosion.  During glacial periods there is more surface run off, and the rivers cut down through overlying layers.  Braided river systems were formed where the river regularly switched channels and deposited gravel.  The Nettlebed gravel is the oldest associated with the Thames.  It is probably not a terrace deposit, but possibly a gravel deposit across an area which was preserved because it dropped into a sink hole – other small gravel deposits exist locally. Subsequently the drainage pattern of the Thames changed and covered the Midlands.  Then the terraces nearer the Thames were established with more local material.

We followed the path to an area near a large beech tree where the 2m year old gravel (deposit) is exposed.  The older rounded stones are flints which have been exposed on a shore line.  The action of river water is not sufficiently intense to round off flints.  A broken pebble showed a 2-3mm worked layer. We also saw some small creamy white quartz stones, they originate in veins of igneous rock, probably granite in SW England or Brittany. In the Triassic period erosion caused by flash floods washed pebble beds to the Midlands.  These quartzite Bunter pebbles were carried down by the river systems and deposited in younger gravels here. Walking on we left the gravels and moved onto the Lambeth Beds again, with muddy patches due to bands of clay in the sand layers.  We passed an open area previously used as a scout camp where heather was growing in the acid soil and mosses which prefer acid conditions were identified.  Hard fern was seen on the sides of a large pit.

Report by Julia Cooper and Rob Stallard

Pictures by Rob Stallard

Warren Bank – 11 March 2017

Sean O’Leary led a walk to look at mosses and liverworts on Saturday 11 March, starting from the King William pub at Hailley. It was a lovely sunny day. The route led up the track from the pub towards Warren Bank, a small BBOWT reserve with some fine chalk grassland. Early Dog-violets and Celandines were in flower beside the track, the leaves of Sanicle and Woodruff were seen, a Tawny Owl hooted and Skylarks were singing overhead. Woodland moss species such as Hypnum cupressiforme, Fissidens taxifoliius, Kindbergia praelonga and Brachythecium rutabulum were abundant and helped to demonstrate, to the delight of all, the beautiful structures of the moss capsule, with the minute peristome teeth which control the release of spores. Lophocea hetrophylla was also found in fruit, demonstrating the very different spore capsule typical of liverworts.

In the more open grassland at Warren Bank, Scleropodium purum, Homalothecium lutescens and Calliergonella cuspidata were found. Hands and knees searching amongst the ant hills yielded Weissia controversa. It was observed that the Wild Thyme was growing on the south side of the ant hills. There were a number of newly-emerged Bloody-nosed Beetles, including a mating pair. Big queen Bumblebees were on the wing, Hairy Violet flowers dotted the turf and to everyone’s great surprise, a Barn Owl flew out of a nest box.

Pictures by Rob Stallard, Sue White and Laurie Haseler

Nettlebed – 25 February 2017

Jerry Welsh, ably assisted by Sally Rankin and Alan Parfitt, stepped into the breach at short notice and led a well-attended walk round Nettlebed Common on the morning of Saturday 25 February. Before heading out onto the Common, Jerry showed the group the sole remaining kiln, formerly used for making bricks and tiles. The walk started out along Chapel Lane and onto the Common. In the Clay on the left was a large pond with murky brown water. Jerry explained that rainwater collected in pools like this would have been the sole water supply for the village in bygone times, because Nettlebed is the highest point in the area and there are no springs nearby. According to local legend, the dense clumps of Snowdrops beside the path had originally been planted on the Common by gypsies for picking and selling. A little further on, a deep round pit with no obvious exit ramp was identified as a sink hole. The sink holes form when acidic water from the Clay of the Lambeth beds dissolves the underlying Chalk. Jerry then led the group to one of a series of ponds which have been excavated in a project funded by the Trust for Oxfordshire’s Environment. The ponds are of varying sizes and depths, with some draining into others. Trees have been cleared around the ponds to let in the light. The resulting habitat should be good for amphibians. Around the pond were big clumps of Scaly Male Fern.

Continuing round the Common, the route ran beside boundary banks with big old multi-stemmed trees. Several bright red Scarlet Elf-cup fungi were spotted beside the path. Three male Blackbirds flew past, engaged in a furious dispute and making a great deal of noise. Fresh new Bluebell leaves were showing well beneath the Beech trees. The path continued along the edge of the woods. A group of Red Kites were circling above the adjacent fields and a smaller Sparrowhawk flew above them, with its distinctive flapping and gliding flight. The walk continued up an old sunken trackway and past an enormous old Beech pollard. Back in the village, the path behind the cricket pitch led up to a dry open area on Gravel. Sally explained that when the trees had been cleared and the Bracken litter scraped away, Heather rejuvenated naturally. Priest Hill is a SSSI, designated for its geological importance. A sign described the geology of the area, saying that the Nettlebed gravels were the highest and oldest in the Thames Valley. The gravels consist of rounded flints and small white pebbles of quartz and quartzite. Deposited by a river, they are now 150m above the level of the Thames. Pollen preserved in organic silts and clays comes from one of the earliest inter-glacial periods to be preserved in the Thames catchment. They show the transition from a cool climate with dominant birch to a warmer climate with oak, elm, hornbeam and hazel. The path climbed steeply up to Windmill Hill, then back to the village green, passing a flowering Stinking Hellebore plant on the way.

Pictures by Rob Stallard

Thorney Island – 4 February 2017

Ken and Sarah White led a walk at Thorney Island in Chichester Harbour on Saturday 4 February. It was a cold but sunny day with light winds. In the morning, the group headed out to the west side of the Island. There were small flies on the wing and several Chiffchaffs were feeding in the bushes round a pond by the path. It was low tide, and with the sun behind us, there were good views of Brent Geese, Redshank, Curlew, Ringed Plover, Black-tailed Godwit and Dunlin on the mudflats. A pale Greenshank was feeding at the water’s edge and Turnstones were busy in the seaweed. Several Black Swans were spotted by the quayside. A Kingfisher flew from the marsh and perched on the hull of a moored boat, then moved to the cross-trees on the mast of another boat. The pinging call of Bearded Tits was heard coming from the reedbed and Golden-samphire was identified on the sea wall. The Little Deep and the Great Deep are areas of open water within the reedbed. On the Little Deep were several Dabchicks, Gadwall and Tufted Duck. A large flock of Lapwings and numerous Wigeon were on and around Great Deep.

After lunch, the group set out towards the east side of Island. An active little bird in a Holm Oak beside the lane turned out to be a Firecrest and it gave several good views to the delighted observers. A Song Thrush was spotted in an adjoining field and a Sparrowhawk flew overhead. In the channel on the eastern side of the island were a small party of Red-breasted Mergansers and many Brent Geese. The group then drove to the Oyster Beds on the west side of Hayling Island. A mixed group of Mediterranean and Black-headed Gulls were swimming just off-shore and resting on an adjacent shingle island. The Mediterranean Gulls had bigger drooping bills and all-white primaries. A single distant Black-necked Grebe was spotted further out in Portsmouth Harbour. Most of the group then stayed for a meal in a local restaurant before heading back towards Reading.

Pictures by Laurie Haseler

Norfolk – 5-8 January 2017

Ken and Sarah White organised a trip to the North Norfolk coast from 5-8 January, staying at the Blakeney Manor Hotel. The weather was cold, still and sunny on the Thursday when the party assembled at the RSPB’s Titchwell Marsh reserve. 2 Water Rails were spotted in a ditch next to the path. Many waders and ducks, including Wigeon, Teal, Shelduck and Shoveler, were feeding in the various lagoons of the reserve. Big flocks of Lapwing and Golden Plover rose up into the air from time to time while Grey Plovers fed singly on the mud. It was possible to compare the plain grey backs of the Black-tailed Godwits with the scaly-backed Bar-tailed Godwits. Out on the sandy beach were Dunlin, Oystercatcher, Turnstone, Sanderling and a few Knot. Further out were big rafts of Common Scoter. On the return walk through the reserve as the light failed, about 20 Marsh Harriers were seen. First destination on Friday was the Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s Cley reserve. Handsome Pintails were feeding in the first lagoon. Also taking place that morning was a memorial event for the victims of a US Air Force helicopter crash in January 2014. The fly-past by 2 helicopters disturbed many of the birds on the reserve. Many leaf clumps of Yellow-horned Poppy were seen on the pebbly beach and some of the group had a distant sighting of a Glaucous Gull. After warming up at the reserve Visitor Centre, next stop was a short distance further east along the coast at Salthouse. Food is regularly put out for birds at the base of the shingle bank and this had attracted a flock of about 60 Snow Buntings. The group then drove south to Stubs Mill, to a viewpoint which overlooks a vast reedbed around Hickling Broad. A number of Marsh Harriers were seen, but the hoped for Hen Harriers and Cranes proved elusive.

Thick fog on Saturday led to a change of plan. Instead of visiting the RSPB’s Snettisham reserve, where it would be difficult to see distant birds, the group returned to Titchwell. On the way, 3 different species of goose were spotted in a small flock in a field near Holkham – White-fronted, Pink-footed and Dark-bellied Brent. A Brambling was seen near the feeders at the back of the visitor centre at Titchwell and Lesser Redpolls were feeding in the tops of the Alders nearby. Out on the lagoons, there were close views of a Spotted Redshank, with a common Redshank nearby for comparison. The Spotted Redshank had a prominent eye stripe and a much longer bill. The leg ring on a juvenile Greater Black-backed Gull showed that it was a first-year bird which had fledged in west Norway. Out at the beach, there were enormous numbers of ducks on the sea. Amongst the Common Scoters were about a dozen Velvet Scoters, whose white wing patches were very obvious when they flew. Also seen were Long-tailed Duck, Goldeneye and Red-breasted Merganser, and a Grey Seal swam close to the shore. The afternoon’s destination was Abbey Farm at Flitcham, where good hedges and strips of seed plants around the field margin attract finches, Tree Sparrows, Grey Partridges and Stock Doves. Within the field was a vast flock of Pink-footed Geese. A Little Owl was heard calling nearby. The farm also has a bird hide which looks out over a pond and a field with the Little Owl’s favourite perch on a low spreading oak. On Sunday morning, most of the group went to Holkham Gap, where they were enchanted by a flock of about 30 Lapland Buntings feeding on the seeds of Glasswort. They were remarkably tolerant of people and dogs, as long as the latter were on leads. Out to sea were Red-breasted Mergansers close in and enormous numbers of Common Scoter further out.

Pictures by Ken White

Remenham – 11 December 2016

The church at Remenham was the starting point of a very enjoyable walk along the Thames towards Hambleden, led by Sally Rankin. It was a beautiful and sunny winter’s afternoon and we still found a few wild plants in flower, such as Hogweed and White Dead-Nettle. Other plants were still recognisable from their fruits, such as Canadian Fleabane, Sticky Mouse-ear, Yarrow, Gypsywort, Ribwort Plantain, Dandelion and Water Figwort. First year Wild Angelica leaves were recognised as such because they were trifoliate and had red nodes. We also saw quite a few species of birds on the Thames such as Swans, Tufted Duck, Mallard and Great Crested Grebes (one adult and two young ones), and we heard the sound of a Tawny Owl. Canada Geese were grazing in the adjacent fields. When we walked passed Temple Island, Sally told us that the Henley Regatta started here. This afternoon quite a few rowers were practising on this stretch of the Thames. Sally also pointed towards ponds on the other side of the River in which local populations of toads release their spawn. When the toads migrate to these ponds in February/March, they have to cross the busy Henley to Marlow Road. They do this at dusk, the time of the rush hour. This has caused many casualties, so there is now a Toad Rescue group. A barrier is placed in the woods and here the toads are picked up and transferred safely to the ponds.

When we continued our walk, we saw several more plants in fruit along the Thames, which included Shephard’s-purse, Black Bryony, Reed, Meadowsweet, Hemp Agrimony, Purple Loosestrife, Perforate St John’s-wort, Bittersweet and Great Willowherb. The Alder catkins for next spring were already visible. There were Mole hills in the grass along the path, a Red Kite flew over and a Cormorant was swimming in the water. When we reached Hambleden Lock, we looked at a Paddle Steamer that had just arrived there. Jolly passengers were outside on deck and they seemed to have been wining and dining downstairs on the boat. After this intermezzo we went back along different paths through the countryside via Aston. Red Dead-nettle was in flower here and Groundsel, Dark Mullein and Mugwort in fruit. We saw a flock of Long-tailed Tits in a tree. The path led back to the churchyard at Remenham, in the neighbourhood of which our cars had been parked.

Report by Renée Grayer

Pictures by Rob Stallard