NEWSLETTER No. 86 – AUTUMN 2007
a strange year it has been – summer in April, winter/monsoon season
in summer, and now autumn wind and mist. The migratory birds were about
early – my house martins almost two weeks early. Someone had told
them it was sunny and warm here. A lot of birds started a successful breeding
season, only to be hit with low temperatures and rain for the rest of
the summer. But there seem to have been more baby birds bouncing about
the garden than usual this summer, blundering into flowers and doing unintended
roll-overs round thin branches.
There was a feast of wild flowers – summer flowers very early, early and late summer flowers all out together, and spring flowers sometimes making a second go of it. One feared late summer might see the verges rather bare, but many plants are responding to the finer weather and flowering again. There are ribbons of moon daisies along the A40.
hedgehogs who managed to avoid starvation in the dry spring were rewarded
with the glut of slugs and snails in the monsoon season. But other animals
were not so lucky. Many a rabbit and mole must have been forced to emigrate
from the Oxfordshire meadows. Certainly there were molehills in the most
unusual places. Even animals used to the water, such as the rare water
voles, were sometimes washed away; at best only their burrows were flooded
out. Tiny field mice no doubt would not always be able to move fast enough
to avoid the rising water. The experts (my thanks to the excellent Oxford
Times article by Debbie Lewis of BBOWT) fear this will affect the predators,
such as barn owls, later on.
The cold and wet have made life hard for the invertebrates, so small predators will suffer, too, including the bat population. Even the marshland plants have suffered, and it is feared the underground parts of the fritillaries may rot in the wet. Perhaps we need the beaver back to help spread the flood-water over a wider area. This mammal is increasingly being introduced to places on the continent to create a more diverse range of marshland habitats. Beavers can help to save the cost of pollarding willows and other riverside trees, keeping the banks clear for other animals, such as otters, to make their homes in, as they cut them down in a cycle. Once they have exhausted the food near their lodge, they move on and dam up another part of the river, leaving their old dam and ponds to revert to marsh and then meadow. This leads to more biodiversity.
Despite the weather, the Club has been rambling around Oxfordshire and beyond as usual. We started the season with May flowers and birds in the meadows at Kidlington, a dawn chorus at Great Barrington with a follow-up spotting session in the afternoon, and a bluebell walk in Pinsley wood. But with the early spring the bluebells had beaten us to it – it was more a case of ‘spot the bluebell’.
We had a magical evening at Snelsmore Common. Other rambles ranged from Otmoor to Bourton-on-the-Water, Swalcliffe, Appleton Common and the countryside around the Cotswold Farm Park near the Guitings. At Aston Upthorpe and Juniper Valley, near the Ridgeway, we did not see so many butterflies as on last year’s joint trip with the Abingdon Naturalists, but this was more than made up for by sightings of two harriers, and some good chalkland wildflowers. We were lucky to have a fine, sunny day.
Our trip to Dry Sandford Pit rewarded the few of us who turned up with good views of butterflies and dragonflies and plenty of marsh plants. Dragonflies were also in evidence on a ramble around the Cotswold Water Park near Cirencester but not on Otmoor.
The Club also took two holidays – a week in Northumberland and a weekend in the New Forest, the latter led by Peter Creed.
summer party at the Swan Hotel at Radcot Bridge was enjoyed by all. Despite
being almost alongside the river, they had narrowly missed being flooded.
We enjoyed good food and excellent, friendly service.
REPORTS OF FIELD MEETINGS
Minster Lovell and Crawley 15 April 2007
set off for Crawley from the Minster Lovell Hall car park on an almost
mid-summer-like morning – blue sky, no wind and a temperature of
about 18ºC. As we approached the village we paused to admire the
view across the river valley. Our route then took us through the village,
over the river bridge, south onto the bridleway towards Witney, up the
hill to the Crawley road, down through Maggots Grove, through the water
meadows to the wooden river bridge, through the ruins of Minster Lovell
Hall and the churchyard back to the cars. Bluebells were in flower along
the footpath to Crawley, and so were Marsh Marigolds below Maggots Grove.
Several butterfly species were in flight and a damselfly alighted on vegetation
as we passed by.
of the flowers seen:
The venue was originally arranged to see the spectacular display of Bluebells that is produced annually in this wood but, due to the unusually warm weather in April, the season was early this year, so we knew beforehand that we were to be disappointed. Undeterred, however, we set off on a circular walk, which took a little over an hour, during which we saw the birds and wild flowers listed below
= heard only
Snelsmore Common 10 June 2007
We had a magical evening at Snelsmore Common. This was a joint RSPB/WOFC trip. It was a warm (relatively) evening, with a soft peach sky and a slow sunset. While we waited for dusk to fall, we looked for small birds among the bushes and trees, seeing a range of finches, linnets and tits. As dusk fell, we were treated to some splendid views of Woodcock roding across the heathland. We had to wait until it was even darker for the Nightjars to start up. At first they were so faint that we had trouble distinguishing them from the noise of the nearby M4 motorway. Gradually the strange churring began to come at us from various directions, moving from place to place as the evening wore on. Eventually we arrived at a point where the Nightjars were actually hawking for insects over our heads. A real treat.
West Mead, Yarnton 20 June 2007
A windy but pleasant summer’s evening found us meeting in a lorry-filled lay-by on the A40 near Cassington for a walk led by Dr Alison MacDonald. We were joined by two of Dr MacDonald’s Dutch students. A short walk across an embankment and bridge found us in a tranquil plant-rich, riverside hay meadow. Apart from most interesting botanical information, Dr MacDonald explained the history of the Yarnton and Begbroke Meads, which date back to Saxon times. The Meads are divided into lots which the farmers of the parish have the right to mow for hay and graze stock on the aftermath. The lots are drawn annually and mowing is not allowed before 1 July. This regime of mowing followed by grazing is in no small measure responsible for the wealth of meadow plants.
The wind seemed to be keeping birds and butterflies grounded but a large number of House Martins were feeding and Meadow Brown Butterflies were seen.
Crawley road verge survey 27 June 2007
A small group of us gathered in the ‘Bird-in-Hand’ car park for a pre-walk talk. Briefly, road verges in so many places have become the last refuges for our native grassland flora, but even these are being lost as a result of nutrient enrichment (over-spread of fertilizer from adjoining fields and vehicle exhaust emissions), together with the practice of cutting the vegetation several times a year and not removing it, which results in the nutrients in the soil being increased as the vegetation rots down. To get an idea of how serious a problem this is, surveys need to be carried out and ideally experiments with different regimes of cutting and removing the top growth. There are a number of road-side nature reserves in Oxfordshire chosen for their rich flora but sadly even this designation does not guarantee that it will stay that way. The stretch of verge we were about to survey is one of these nature reserves.
Weather conditions were not ideal that evening for carrying out a plant survey in long grass on the side of the road. It was quite cold and windy. The skies were dark with heavy clouds and it was not long before the heavens opened. The sun did manage to show itself briefl,y resulting in a lovely rainbow. Despite this, our spirits were not dampened and we set to identifying and listing all we could find there. We were delighted to find a good selection of plants typical of calcareous grassland. It was surprising how long it took, and the light was beginning to fade as we reached the end. At some stage during the evening somebody must have glanced up from the vegetation and noticed a Barn Owl quartering the meadow away on the other side of the road. The only other birds we were aware of were a Yellowhammer singing in hedge opposite and two Skylarks singing their hearts out above us. Clinging to the stalks of grasses were several Six-Spot Burnet moth chrysalises and butterflies trying to shelter from the rain. Marbled White and Meadow Brown butterflies made brief sorties. Where the vegetation was less dense we disturbed a Common Lizard. In places the vegetation was particularly sparse and here there were light-green patches of the widespread moss Pseudoscleropodium purum.
The only other thing to note: a police lady passing in a patrol car stopped to ask us if we were OK! She must have thought we looked a bit suspicious!
The WOFC party was reinforced by 50% when a dragonfly expert from Middlesborough joined us. This poor turnout was undoubtedly due to members’ listening to the weather forecast. Those of us who were more optimistic were rewarded with a dry but windy afternoon, with sunny periods.
The reserve has many solitary bees and wasps and we did not even need to leave the car park to discover that two holes in the main reserve notice board were inhabited by bees of unknown identity. Our new northern friend soon identified Blue-tailed Damselfly and Brown Hawker and Broad-bodied Chaser dragonflies. Although there were no uncommon species of anything observed during our visit, there was a fair number of common butterflies, including Ringlet, Marbled White, tens of newly emerged Meadow Browns, three Red Admirals, a newly emerged Comma, a single Large Skipper and two Large Whites. The White Letter Hairstreak, which I have seen here in the past, was not seen, probably due to the fact that the elms that used to flourish here and supply the food of this Hairstreak’s caterpillar, have now almost totally disappeared following Dutch Elm disease.
The highlight of the afternoon was undoubtedly the sighting at close range of a large Grass Snake basking in the sun. Good views were obtained by everyone before it crawled under a fence into long grass.
of the party made a very brief visit to the nearby Parsonage Moor reserve,
an SSSI, at the end of the afternoon. Due to the boggy conditions away
from the wooden walkways, we were unable to find any of the reserve’s
specialities (e.g. Sundew, Butterwort, Grass of Parnassus, Scarlet Tiger
Moth). We also had great difficulty getting past the two ponies blocking
our route over the walkway. These are ‘employed’ to graze
the reserve at appropriate times of the year.
Aston Upthorpe Downs and Juniper Valley 8 July 2007
As we entered Juniper valley (which contains many large Junipers) we saw several Red Kites (much commoner here than around Witney!) and two Buzzards. Particularly exciting was the sight of two Harriers (probably of the ‘Montague’s’ variety rather than the RAF one!) taking off from the ground and remaining in sight for several minutes. Shortly afterwards, there was an RAF connection – a WW2 Hawker Hurricane fighter aircraft flew over! Yellowhammer, Sky Lark and Corn Bunting – all declining species were seen – as was a solitary Whinchat. Birds heard but not seen included Whitethroat, Blackcap and Green Woodpecker.
The weather stayed fine, and as we descended towards our cars, we saw a wonderful display of perhaps two hundred Pyramidal Orchids at the side of the footpath, and lower down, the start of what promises to be a heavy crop of hazel nuts.
*A Chiltern speciality.
A cool but pleasant afternoon for a walk in the hilly countryside of North Oxfordshire. Just over a week previously we had experienced torrential storms but, apart from a short stretch, the conditions underfoot were good. The area is mainly arable with crops of wheat and oats; the oats had been almost completely flattened but the stiff short-staple wheat was largely unscathed. At a bridge over a small (unnamed) stream near Swalcliffe Mill there were signs of the inundation including a new sandbank on which a surprisingly large fish had been stranded (species unknown).
few birds were seen except for a flock of Starlings (c. 20). We walked
beside a tall, dense, species-rich hedge but none of the trees looked
very old. Cherry trees provided some sweet, ripe fruit and a small Bullace
(wild plum), heavily laden with yellow fruit, was later revisited to pick
the plums which made an award-winning chutney.
Common 5 August 2007
The Thames was still very high, of course, and there was the expected evidence of the muddy flood level, along with washed-up vegetation. There were really no flowers. However, we did see a Heron and a flock of about 40 Lapwings, probably just arrived from the continent.
fields were all covered with the rotting grass, which had an odd whitish
colour. We walked along the riverbank for a while but by general agreement
thought we ‘had had enough’, so back we strolled in the dusk.
It was actually a warm, pleasant evening somewhat spoiled!
A Weekend in the New Forest 15/16 September
What a lovely way to spend a weekend! The weather was extremely pleasant, especially on Saturday when the sun shone all day. We stayed in a hotel in Lyndhurst which was well situated for visiting the sites of interest and which looked after us very well. This was a return visit to the New Forest for some of the members, who were in the group that visited the New Forest with the Club in September 1993. Once again, we found many of the New Forest specialities.
On Saturday morning we set out for Matley Bog and were soon recording all the plants we came across on the way there from the car park. It was amazing how many we saw and the list grew quickly. Once at the bog, even though we abandoned trying to keep our feet dry, we did try to avoid the areas where you could sink in up to your knees. My trainers still smell of this bog – a poignant reminder of a fascinating habitat. We were thrilled to find the Lesser Bladderwort, a very small insectivorous plant, which was in flower and showing the bladders in which it catches minute insects. But we were disappointed not to find the Bog Orchid (Hammarbyra paludosa) here.
Flying about over the bog were Keeled Skimmer Dragonflies (Orthetrum coerulescens), a species that breeds mainly in peat bogs and flies from June to September. Also we were privileged to see the UK’s largest grasshopper, appropriately named the Large Marsh Grasshopper (Stethophyma grossum) in the vegetation. This grasshopper is now restricted in the UK to Dorset and the New Forest, though apparently it used to occur in the Thames Valley until the mid-19th century.
We moved on to Yew Tree Heath and walked down to the wetter area where we were delighted to find the Marsh Gentian in considerable numbers, though these flowers were not obvious when in bud. Here, too, the Oblong-leaved Sundew grows. This species prefers the less-wet areas found here than the Round-leaved Sundew which grows in Matley Bog. We disturbed a Common Lizard as we plodded around in the vegetation.
After lunch in Brockenhurst, we drove to East End to look at the disused marl pits, which are renowned for their special flora. First we investigated a piece of common land where, in the damper areas, among other interesting plants, we found Penny Royal, Lesser Skullcap and Pale Butterwort. Walking over the turf kept short by the ponies produced the distinctive scent of Chamomile with its daisy-like flowers scattered about. The fruiting body of a fungus was identified as Blackening Wax Cap (Hygrocybe nigrescens), a widespread, common grassland species. The big disappointment here was that we only found one spike of Autumn Lady’s Stresses in an area where many had been found on the previous visit. On the other side if the road we had trouble finding Coral Necklace which normally grows in profusion in a wet depression here. We could only find this plant in a vegetative state at a time when we expected it to be in flower. The Least Water Pepper appeared to be crowding it out but then we spotted flowers of New Zealand Pigmyweed and realised that this invasive alien was growing in great profusion here, which is really bad news for the rare native plants.
The short walk to the next marl pit took us by a hedge where several interesting plants were found and a Small Copper butterfly was flitting around. Before reaching our objective, we came across an unusual sight of what appeared to be pink caterpillars in a slight depression in the ground, which turned out to be Coral Necklace in flower. Out came the hand lenses and, down on hands and knees, we examined these odd tiny flowers. Here we looked for the flowers of Yellow Centaury (Cicendia filiformis), but did not find any. The pond in the old marl pit we were approaching was rather pretty with pink and white waterlilies. Here we found Parrot’s Feather, another alien aquatic species.
Our return journey took us past Hatchet Pond. As this is another hot spot for rarities we stopped here. Leaving the tourists enjoying the late afternoon sunshine by the car park we wandered along the shore and found two different water plantains and Nodding Burr Marigold, and a rather good specimen of Arrowhead.
After breakfast on Sunday we headed for Keyhaven but stopped off on the way to walk in Whitley Wood, a good example of an ancient wood in the New Forest. As there had been no rain for several weeks preceding our visit there were very few fungi to be found. This wood is a renowned fungus-forager’s paradise but not so far this year. Conspicuous on the forest floor were clumps of a grey moss Leucobryum glaucum, which become detached and blow around. As expected, there were few flowers either, Cow wheat being the only notable find.
After lunch at Keyhaven some of us set out to walk to Hirst Castle along the spit. We found lots of typical seashore plants on the approach. Once on the shingle we walked along the inland side of the spit and were pleased to be out of the wind. Here we came across huge specimens of Sea Kale and Yellow Horned-poppy. The latter were sporting the long seed pods characteristic of this species. When our leader looked more closely at a knotgrass, he realised that it was Ray’s Knotgrass, a species new to him. He went home a happy man! When those of us who made it to the castle realised that there was a passenger ferry back to Keyhaven we decided to take it, as we had found the shingle hard going and returning the way we came we were unlikely to be able to get back to the car park before our parking ticket had expired. What a good way to end our trip to the New Forest.
The plants are listed in the order in which they were recorded, with the rare plants identified with an asterisk.
End Marl Pits
the way to and at 2nd marl pit
(c) West Oxfordshire Field Club 2010
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