Walton Hall Nature Trail, what's on June

Summer is here at last. Although the longest day of the year is 21 June the weather often does not fully warm up until July and August. On 22 June its the Open University Open Day so a good opportunity to walk round the nature trail as well as seeing all the latest developments at the OU.

Insects There are now plenty of damselflies and butterflies about [such as the brimstone, common blue and meadow brown shown right] along with many different coloured beetles. [update]The hot thundery weather of early June brought with it large numbers of migrating painted lady butterflies (Cynthia cardui), they were just passing through heading north. Normally there is a steady trickle of this species to our region from north Africa but just occasionally [as this year?] there are outbreaks with many thousands of individuals swarming across the Mediterranean into northern Europe. Perhaps this year will also be good for rare migrants such as clouded yellow or camberwell beauty.

Plants The hay meadow is coming into it own with the grasses starting to push up their flowering stems, there are actually a considerable number of different species in this area, we hope to survey them this year (hayfever permitting). In among the grass is a rather uncommon species Great Burnet Sanguisorba officinalis. Its distinctive red globular flower-heads and pinnate leaves are only found in damp unimproved grassland - a habitat that has become rare in these days of intensive farming.

The river can light up with the floating white flowers of water crowfoot (Ranunculus fluitans) at this time of year so long as the swans don't eat them all.

Birds If you go for a walk along the river look out for cygnets. The two parent swans have been shepherding a group of about 6 young up and down our section of river busily grazing the waterweeds. Also keep an eye out for the kingfishers, I have n't seen them recently but did notice them earlier in the year.

Another small but 'good' bird to spot is the spotted flycatcher. At rest they look rather like the other small grey brown things that abound through the reedbeds and willow trees, but they have a very distinctive flight, darting out to catch insects over the river then flitting back to their perch.

Reptiles At last, something to say about reptiles. At lunchtime today (5 June) I found a wall lizard basking in the hot sun outside the Venables building. This species is not native to the UK, it looks rather like our sand lizard with spots and a grey/brown tail, it is larger than the common lizard. This individual may have escaped from someone's collection or possibly come in with the large containers associated with building works in this area.

Amphibians After the breeding season adult smooth newts can move away from Walton Lake at any time from the end of May onwards. Young newts (metamorphs) normally start leaving at the end of June although since it has been so cold this year they may be rather later. Below is shown a male smooth newt with full breeding crest however by the time they leave the ponds this crest has almost vanished and they look rather dull.

Fish A good place to look out for fish is from the church river bridge. There are often shoals in the shallows. Recently there have been much larger (about 40-50cm long) fish thrashing about in that area - possibly roach egglaying in the waterweeds.

One plant which may get botanists flocking to the Milton Keynes area at this time of year is field cow-wheat (Melampyrum arvense). This very rare and beautiful species does not grow along the nature trail but it does grow near Milton Keynes. It is an annual of cornfields and grassy field margins and used to be fairly common but is now restricted to a very few sites in the UK and is said to be further decreasing. It is possible that it could come back in some of the 'set aside' fields so keep any eye open when out walking in the countryside. A little further east in Bedfordshire the very local crested cow-wheat (Melampyrum cristatum) also occurs.

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