The day was overcast, and the trees lining the river were bare, looking almost desolate. As soon as I got down to the river for my Riversearch survey on the final day of 2016, I felt convinced that I would see a kingfisher.
The river level was quite low, and relatively clear for a change. No signs of pollution. My winter surveys are always the most thorough. The impenetrable barricade of nettles and brambles had died back enough for me to get much closer to the river than normal.
As far as the survey goes, there was little to report (which is good, but not interesting). I was rewarded for tearing myself away from the fireside by a glimpse of a kingfisher, the most spectacular of British birds. But that wasn’t all. As I retraced my steps, back to the car, I spotted my first ever goldcrest. I was very excited about this, as I have long wanted to see one.
As though the kingfisher and goldcrest hadn’t provided enough colour to make up for the dullness of the day, a pair of bright green ring-necked parakeets also made a show.
It was as though nature was reminding me that although 2016 may have felt pretty bleak, there were bright spots in it. As I start 2017, uncertain what it will bring, I will look out for beauty.
As usual, I left my Riversearch check for last quarter til the last possible day. When I saw it was raining on the morning I had booked off work to do it, I had no option other than to waterproof up and get on with it.
The river itself was looking less turbid than usual, and I even managed to spot a fish. The woodland around it is starting to look autumnal. I discovered that conkers make a wonderful plop when they fall from the tree to the river. It was happening so frequently that I got nervous standing beneath the horse chestnut tree, and only had time to gather a couple of conkers before scurrying away from the risk of being hit on the head by one.
The stinging nettles were still abundant and high, so I was glad of my intrepid stick.
Someone has clearly had a go at clearing some of the Himalayan Balsam. There were still a couple of stands of it, but for most of the stretch it was just the odd plant here and there.
There wasn’t much wildlife on view – most animals seemed to be keeping hidden in the dry somewhere. And other people were in short supply as well. Very sensible.
The next riversearch check I do will be quite different, with more of the river accessible as the foliage dies down. Let’s hope we can get through this autumn and winter without the floods we had a couple of years ago.
The main challenge with my Riversearch survey in June was seeing the river – since my previous survey, the plants along the riverbank. have shot up. There were stinging nettles taller than me, and inpenetrable thickets of bramble blocking me from getting close to the river in many places. Still, I did manage the occassional glimpse of the river – enough to see that, though the river level was normal, it was still quite turbid.
There weren’t any particularly exciting wildlife sightings to report, although I did spot some intriguing holes.
I did see a couple of invasive non-native species – Himalayan balsam, as usual, and a probable sighting of Japanese knotweed. This is the first time I have spotted Japanese knotweed along by the river, and I had to use binoculars from the opposite bank to see it, so I’m not 100% sure about my identification. But I’ve shared the photos with the wildlife trust, who seem to think it is knotweed. I don’t know if it’s new here, or if I spotted it this time and missed it previously because I was doing my stretch in the opposite direction to normal. Anyway, that’s now been reported to the National Trust, who own the land, so hopefully they’ll be able to sort it out swiftly.
Japanese knotweed doesn’t look particularly startling (unlike Giant Hogweed), but it can be a big problem, spreading quickly and hard to get rid of. In urban areas it can grow up through patios or conservatory floors, so it’s not something you want in your garden. In the countryside it can quickly overwhelm native species.
I chose a beautiful morning for my March Riversearch survey. The sun was shining, and, being a weekday, I had the stretch of river to myself.
It had rained heavily over the weekend, and, as I looked down from the bridge to the meadow, I wasn’t sure I would even be able to get down to the riverside. Once again, a large area had transformed from meadow to pond. But, thanks to my wellies and my intrepid stick, I was able to get through, staying dry and upright.
The river level was high, and the water turbid. Some of the pipes were discharging a bit of liquid into the river, and in one place the flooded field was draining back into the river.
In the wood there were signs of spring. Wild garlic leaves were plentiful, but the flowers weren’t yet out, so their pungent aroma wasn’t noticeable.
The advantage of surveying just after the water level had somewhat receded was that any patches of earth were blank slates. Instead of the usual muddle of prints from dogs and their owners, there was a smooth, soft surface. This enabled me to spot a clear track in the woods following the river bank. What’s less clear is what made it.
Looking at my track id guide, they look to me like large rat prints. But fellow mammal group members think they’re probably mustellid, either mink (which we know are present on this stretch), or, more excitingly, polecat or polecat-ferret. What do you think?
Once again I’d left my Riversearch survey til the last moment, so ended up squeezing it into my busy Christmas Eve. (I did get questioned by a passerby as to why I was out ‘working’ on Christmas Eve, who couldn’t quite believe that was how I choose to spend my leisure time). The weather wasn’t very tempting for a riverside stroll that morning. But rain is no excuse to put off a Riversearch survey – in fact, it may be better, as it allows you to see any runoff from fields, roads and pipes. So I donned my wellies and headed out. By the time I got out there, the rain had eased off somewhat – there were even glimpses of blue sky.
Like the rest of the country, we’ve had quite a lot of rain lately. Thankfully we’ve escaped the flooding other areas had. While the ground was boggy and the water level high, at least I could walk through the meadow – exactly two years ago I wouldn’t have been able to do that, as it was completely submerged.
Winter is always a good time to do the survey for my stretch – the nettles, himalayan balsam and other plants have died back enough to allow me to see a lot more of the river bank than usual. The main finding of interest was pollution coming from a few of the pipes in the riverbank. There was quite a lot of white foam on the river, building up in places, but that seemed to be coming from further upstream. I don’t know what it was, but definitely something to report.
Aside from that, the only other notable finding was a mystery nest, lodged a couple of feet up a sapling on the riverbank. Any ideas what might have made that?
Water vole numbers have plummeted in recent decades. The decline has been one the steepest of any British mammal (an unenviable position). They’re now absent from 94% of their former sites. Here in Surrey, the last reported sighting of a water vole was six years ago. But have they disappeared from Surrey completely?
A sighting from a decade or two ago indicated that there had been water voles along the stretch of the River Mole that I survey for Riversearch. Yesterday I set out, with Alex from Surrey Wildlife Trust, to see if there were any traces of water voles remaining.
I have to admit that I was skeptical. While my stretch of the River Mole has escaped some of the modifcations that drive water voles away (concrete banks impossible to climb or make burrows in), it’s still not promising water vole habitat. There’s not a huge amount of vegetation in the river, and the Mole isn’t renowned for its water quality. (There’s a sewage works just upstream from my patch, and it starts life at Gatwick airport, which is hardly auspicious).
The survey involved one of us (Alex, since she possessed some very leaky waders) getting into the river, and walking along a stretch looking closely at one bank for any signs of water voles (burrows, pawprints, droppings, feeding lawns). Meanwhile, I followed along the top of the bank, drawing a map of key features.
The 100m stretch we surveyed had steep earth banks, and was lined with trees. The river was mostly fairly shallow at this point (0.5m). Sadly there was no sign of any water voles. And, even worse, there were lots of signs of mink. The rise of mink (an invasive non-native species) has been another key contributing factor to the decline of the water vole, as mink are excellent hunters and small enough to fit in a water vole’s burrow, leaving them no safe place to hide.
Apart from the mink signs we also found some juvenile rat prints, some heron prints and saw a kingfisher.
While it was disappointing result, this sort of evidence is needed to work out how best to help water voles recover in Surrey. So far 40 surveys, like the one I carried out, have been done on sites where old records of water voles exist. There’s about 200 sites in total that Surrey Wildlife Trust want to check, before proceeding to the next stage. As well as actively surveying sites, they’re also asking members of the public to submit any water vole sightings in the county. They have a useful vole ID guide on their website.
To find out more about the project, visit the Vole Patrol page of the Surrey Wildlife Trust website.
I timed my latest Riversearch survey well today. Yesterday it was just too darned hot, and it rained a lot of this morning, but this afternoon, after the rain, there was a brief period of steam and solitude. In addition to the usual surveying the River Mole for signs of pollution, invasive species and, optimistically, hints of otters or water voles, I was also carrying out a recce for a more indepth water vole survey I hope to do later this week.
Before I get too distracted by water voles (or the absence of them), here’s how the Riversearch survey went. I’d just turned off the pavement onto the meadow by the river when I spotted my first animal: a small, bold mouse. By its size it must be a juvenile woodmouse. It was surpisingly calm, and let me approach to within a metre before retreating to a safer distance (1.5 metres – I must look quite unthreatening).
I was pleased to see there was no one sleeping rough under the bridge this time (particularly since the river level has recently been over the ledge where the person was sleeping last time I surveyed).
It must be a good time to be a fruit and/or nut-eating animal or bird at the moment – the brambles were laden with blackberries, and the trees have started dropping acorns and hazelnuts. But I saw and heard little in the way of bird life – a couple of crows and a duck.
There were no obvious signs of pollution in the water, and the river was relatively clear (the Mole is hardly a sparkling example of water purity, but the recent rains have obviously not muddied it too much). The bad news is there were lots of small pockets of Himalayan Balsam all along my stretch. I spoke to an angler who fishes up near Gatwick, and says there’s lots up there. All this is bad news further downstream – I know in the last couple of years they’ve been doing lots of work to get rid of it near Leatherhead, but the seeds are carried by water, so it will just keep coming back unless the upstream patches of it are tackled.
Apart from that there was little else to report – a few more riffles than normal (that’s a good thing as they oxygenate the river), and quite a bit of litter where people have been picnicking by the river. I even came across an abandoned rubber dinghy. I really can’t understand why, when you choose to spend time in a place because it’s lovely and unspoilt, you’d then leave behind your rubbish to spoil it for others (and more importantly, pose a hazard to wildlife).
To carry out our water vole survey (as part of Surrey Wildlife Trust’s ‘Vole Patrol’) we’re going to need to get into the river, so I was scoping out whether the river is shallow enough to do so, and whether we’ll be able to get in and out ok. Along most of the length of my stretch the banks are very steep, but there are a few spots where there’s a more gentle slope, and the river should be manageable in waders. I’m hopeful that, provided there’s not too much rain over the next few days, we’ll be able to survey it without the need for a boat (I suspect the rubber dinghy’s been abandoned for a reason, so I’m not sure I’d trust it enough!). More of that, if it happens, later.
In the meantime, I must remember to send my survey data to the Riversearch team, and clean my wellies to make sure there’s no quagga mussels clinging to them…
I chose another glorious afternoon for my May Riversearch survey. It’s a joy to be out and about in the May sunshine – the trees wearing their new gowns of leaves, every wildflower bursting with the joy of life.
Butterflies and damesflies were busy making the most of the good weather, and birds were busy with bringing up youngsters.
The river was back to its normal level, with the Stepping Stones easily crossable (if a little slippery). There were no signs of pollution, and no fresh fly tipping.
Few people were out and about – just a few youngsters enjoying sitting round, listening to music and chatting (enjoying the start of half term, and a brief respite from exams).
I came across an intriguing hole in a tree trunk – not sure who was using it.
So much has grown up since my last survey, it was much harder to see the river. A thick wall of waist-high stinging nettles defeated me in some places – I’d need thicker trousers before I attempt to force may way through them! By the time of my next survey they may well be as tall as me, limiting the thoroughness of my data collection.
Sadly not everything was so positive. When I looked under the bridge to check for signs of otters I came across someone sleeping rough. Not a great place to set up camp for any length of time, as though the river level was ok, any heavy rain and the river would easily cover where the person was sleeping.
The other negative to my survey was signs of Himalayan Balsam returning. I only spotted a few metres of the stuff, but give it a month or two and it’s likely to have engulfed much more of the riverbank.
My December Riversearch was uneventful, with little to report. And not much has changed since then. No news is perhaps a good thing – there weren’t any obvious signs of pollution or invasive species (although invasive plants mostly won’t be obvious at this time of year, and I didn’t search for signal crayfish or quagga mussels). And while the river level was quite high (the stepping stones were well covered), it wasn’t flooded.
There were some signs of spring, with a few clumps of snowdrops scattered around, and wild garlic leaves appearing. Bird song filled the air, but the trees are still bare.
Given there was so little to report, it’s a bit hard to motivate myself to get round to returning the data. But, even this unexciting result is important to monitoring the health of the River Mole. So I really should send the results back in. And I will. Sometime. Maybe next weekend.
Riversearch has been going for around 18 months now, and they’ve refined the forms we use, to make the paperwork quicker and easier once you’ve done the initial search. (The basic info about a stretch of river doesn’t change that much from month to month – bridges tend not to be too temporary, and land use change is not that rapid).
One of the new things they ask for now is information about the wildlife we see along the way. Now, this is much more to my taste (and skills) than describing the geography of the rivers – rills, bars etc. So, I was pleased to come across some deer prints in the wood by the river. The prints were very small (perhaps muntjac or a small female of a larger type of deer). So, while I don’t have anything exciting to report about the river, at least I can submit the deer print photos, to be added to the county database.
In all the excitement of Christmas, I haven’t had a chance yet to tell you about my latest Riversearch. For those of you who are new to this blog, Riversearch is a scheme run by Surrey Wildlife Trust, where voluntary River Wardens regularly survey their stretch of river. We look out for (and report) pollution, non-native invasive species, and more positively, signs of river wildlife like otters and water voles.
I did my most recent survey just before Christmas. It was quite a contrast to the same stretch a year ago. On Christmas Eve 2013 the River Mole flooded, hitting the national news. When I surveyed it in early January (once the water levels had receded enough to get near it), the meadows along it were like lakes.
Christmas 2014 was different. In fact, the remarkable thing was there was nothing remarkable to see, for the first time. No storm-felled trees. No burst banks. No dumped rubbish. No invasive species. No kingfishers. No deer prints. No people paddling. No intriguing cache of fruit. Nothing. Just the river at a normal level, doing what rivers do best.
Still, even this rather dull data is useful, I’m assured.
This is my diary of the wildlife where I live in Oxfordshire, and sometimes the places I visit. I am a young naturalist with a passion for British wildlife, especially Badgers and Hares. I have been blogging since May 2013 and you can read my old blog posts at www.appletonwildlifediary.blogspot.co.uk