Walton Hall Nature Trail, what's on June - August

After all the talk about droughts earlier in the year it turned out to be the wettest June since 1860 with over twice the normal rainfall. This stimulated plenty of grass growth and another large flush of fungi but it was not so good for the butterflies and dragonflies. Perhaps things will warm up for July and August.

Warm summer evenings are a good time for a stroll round the nature trail. Look out for dragonflies, moths, bats and amphibians but use all your senses as sounds are more obvious on still evenings and the scent of flowers such as the sweet nectar of lime trees can be overpowering.

Plants Horsetails are rather common and obvious round the trail at this time of year. There are several species but all look rather similar, a single green stem about 30-60cm tall with whorls of many simple green branches coming off and no leaves. The new 'evolution' greenhouse at Kew has a very nice display of giant horsetails if you want to see some really big ones, there is also some primordial soup and dinosaur footprints for good measure!. Horsetails are one of the most ancient groups of plants, surviving from the time of the dinosaurs. They have an underground rhizome which puts up new shoots each year, one species the field horsetail (Equisetum arvense) is a common 'weed' in gardens and is very difficult to get rid of because the shoots just snap off leaving this underground rhizome lurking ready to throw up new shoots. The gardeners found this out to their cost when planting the shrub beds outside Venables, they left the horsetail in and now can't get rid of it, the plant also has a growing tip capable of pushing through tarmac paths which it is also doing outside Venables building!

This year I had trouble finding the unusual parasitic plant dodder, it is an annual and grows on a different patch of nettles each year. I did eventually find it growing on the inside (virtually inaccessible) curve of the oxbow lake. It was rampant, growing over all the different species of plant indeed I was rather worried standing there in the middle of it that it would grab my leg since it had put on several metres of growth in just a few weeks.

Red poppies have been rather common this year, it is unusual to see them round the trail since they generally live in arable fields and other regularly disturbed areas rather than our permanent grassland and hedgerows. Perhaps they were able to grow because there were gaps in the vegetation caused by last years drought. Long-headed poppy (Papaver dubium) can be found on the river bank, bark path and pine plantation but there is also the rare Papaver dubium subspecies lecoqii in a few places. This unusual species can be told apart from 'normal' long-headed poppies by it yellow latex and its non overlapping petals.


Birds

The house martins have made up for lost time and last time I counted (early June) there were 27 nests. Some of these are being turned into terraces of desirable dwellings with birds building on either side of an initial central nest.

Fungi The third and fourth weeks of June proved to be very fruitful for fungi. Several people rang me up to comment on the large numbers of horse mushrooms (Agaricus arvensis) in the pine plantation. However I suspect there could have been a slight ulterior motive here - they may have been checking to see if the mushrooms were edible! Agaricus, and similar looking Agrocybe, species popped up at many places round the trail including the church yard, the banks near the pond, under the hawthorn hedges and on the bark path. The Marasmius oreades 'fairy rings' were also much in evidence even on the sports field but the most interesting species for me was a group of small bright red Boletus versicolor (B. rubellus). Instead of gills it has yellow pores which slowly turn blue if you touch them, the books say it is rare, normally grows with oaks and comes up in the autumn - well the oaks bit was correct at least.

Insects Damselflies and dragonflies are now very active. Easy species to spot at the moment are:

Just when you think you've sorted out these species of damselfy along comes the 'azure' which looks very much like the common blue. Hawking around over the ox-bow lake I've also seen a much larger blue dragonfly, probably an emperor and the brown winged hawker. Above the grassland there are often four spotted darters.

Flash flood At about 11.30am on 8 July there was a heavy shower of rain in the Walton Hall area. For some reason the runoff from the roads overwhelmed the drainage system and dumped a huge quantity of dirty oily water into Walton Lake. The water level rose several feet and even went over the top of the concrete channels on the north side of the lake and onto the path. Walton Lake is a 'balancing' lake and so designed to take these sudden surges of water prevent the river from flooding downstream. However it was unfortunate that the amount of water was so large and occurred at the peak of the nesting season. Many of the eggs and chicks from the reedbeds may have been lost.


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