Spring surprises

I know the meteorologists and calendar manufacturers will tell me it’s not spring just yet but this weekend it definitely felt springy. The dogs, boaters and walkers were all certainly making the most of it with the busiest weekend we’ve had for a very long time.

I was taking my litter picker for a walk and doing my length inspection. It’s the first time in a while I have been able to do it without a woolly hat or rain coat. I was lucky enough not to just be greeted by some excitable dogs but also my first snowdrop of the year.

This little Dandelion also decided to make a surprising early break the surface. I’d like to say that at 49 I have grown out of needing to exclaim ‘Dandelion’ in an excited tone like a prehistoric rhino from Ice Age pretty much every time I see one. In this case I didn’t manage it.

Another surprising find was that it turns out the cows are brave enough to cross the fish pass bridge when they get out. At least one of them clearly is. In the past when they have managed the odd brief bit of freedom they weren’t quite so adventurous. They are safely back where they belong now.

Finding a dropped coffee cup was definitely not a surprise but my slightly obsessive brain did work out a surprising fact. The nearest place I know of that you can purchase this type of take away coffee is in West Byfleet. I worked out that that means the emptier of this cup either walked 2.3 miles carrying it before dropping it thoughtlessly, expecting somebody else to pick it up, or they drove 3.5 miles and walked 0.4 miles before discarding it. I have to confess to not understanding the mindset that can happily carry a full cup that far but not put a empty one that is very easily flattened in a pocket and take it home.

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Frosty starts and quietly angry water

Like pretty much the whole country, we’ve been having a chilly snap down by the river. After all the grey and rain it’s a nice change. If the forecast is to be believed (it’s not been too accurate of late) we are in for dry days lasting ‘til the end of the month. I really hope so, we’ve barely had a day of navigation so far this year.

I pruned the roses by the weirs last week so the view has really been opened back up. A few stragglers got away from me but it’s still much better.

This was yesterday morning at sunrise. The sky was even pinker this morning, hopefully not a bad omen. Having all the gates open like this is fairly unusual but it’s happened a couple of times in the last few weeks. It makes the place feel and sound very different. I was out pulling pennywort on Monday and kept looking behind me because I heard voices and wanted to make sure I was not an obstruction. It turns out the voices were from completely across the field on the other side of the river. The weirs become almost silent when the back river is high as the water doesn’t have far to fall. Any sound is also somehow distorted by the change in the landscape the raised water levels bring. It is quite eerie and makes you think you are going a little mad looking for people that aren’t there. The lack of sleep equally doesn’t always benefit the mental equilibrium.

Quietly angry water

The levels started to drop off in the early hours so I am shutting in the gates again. I suspect it will be a fairly rapid progression. The river will always save some for an uncivilised hour but it is nice on this occasion to at least have been able to wait until daybreak to start.

Wolf moonlight walk

Another early start this morning. The last band of what has felt like continuous rain of late, has led to the flood boards going out again after only a couple of days of the Navigation being open. I beat the sunrise but it was still a beautiful walk to Papercourt Lock this morning. My phone camera hasn’t really done it justice.

The first full moon of the year has been known as the wolf moon for many centuries. It is this that spawned the werewolf legends. No wolves on my walk, not even too many cows around to meet me, just a sleeping swan and a startled duck.

Welcoming committee

The recent weather has meant lots of midnight trips to the weirs. And petty much round the clock trips for that matter. The brief periods of respite in what has felt like relentless rain, the water levels have dropped enough for me to close the weirs back in. Briefly. All this up and down has meant even more frequent visits to put the flood boards out to close the river to navigation.

All the sleepless nights and busy days have had some upsides. Apart from the excuse to eat cereal of dubious nutritional content at any given time. The constant going in and out of flood has meant more round trips to Pyrford, Newark and Papercourt, taking the boards in and out.

Yesterday’s welcoming committee

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the cows are pleased to see me but they are certainly getting more comfortable with my presence and idle chit chat.

Lone defender of the bridge at dawn
The reason I went home smelling of cow that made my dog cross

Changing seasons

This year it feels like the leaf fall is later than usual but the crazy heavy rain feels like the deluges we often get in Christmas week for some reason. I decided to have a look back through the pictures I have taken of Ernie the Oak over the years to get a true gauge of things.

In the sunshine this week
This week in 2020
Definitely not in the sunshine this week in 2019

So this shows things are a little behind compared to the last few years. I refrain from saying ‘normal’ because in nature that’s not really a term I feel that can be applied. Ernie is holding a few more leaves and quite a bit more chlorophyll.

It’s been a confusing year for trees. The low rainfall meant some shed leaves much earlier in the year to hold on to more moisture when it was in short supply. We have yet to feel a heavy frost here this winter but we have definitely had plenty of wind and rain. It must take an enormous amount of resilience on Ernie’s part to still be looking so well. I guess at well over 250 years old, he’s seen it all before and he’s still here, looking beautiful and making my day. Whatever the weather.

Holding on for the last pollen of the year

I was out mowing before the rain came in but the wind was definitely already here. This little chap was managing to hold on while he was having a feed but it was clearly a struggle. It is always a cheering sight to see.

With the mild temperatures this year some of the species that spend the winter hibernating underground are still out and about making the most of the last pollen and nectar. Plants like these dead nettles and ivy provide vital resources to keep them flying.

Not all species do hibernate so it’s not unusual to catch a buff tailed bumblebee out and about even if it’s been snowing. The areas of the UK a where you see them year round is increasing with sightings further north year on year. That means that if you grow the right winter flowering plants like mahonia and winter jasmine you have a pretty good chance of having some keeping you company in the garden right through the winter.

What a difference a few days makes

When they say you don’t need to water your lawn, they really mean it. After an almost unprecedented dry spell and record temperatures we’ve has 1 moderate shower, 1 thunderstorm and a couple of drizzly spells and this is the result. Given that this grass has had thousands of pairs of feet compacting the ground it’s fair to say it’s a pretty impressive turnaround in less than a week. Isn’t nature amazing.

Sensible time to do something silly

By any standards it has been a weird summer. I managed to fracture my ankle and have been away from the river for much of the most extreme weather but I’m back now.

If I had to choose a time to be out of commission, a heatwave is as good a time as I could plan. The growth rate of all the vegetation has slowed to a crawl and the weirs are as quiet as I’ve known them in over 11 years. That’s not to say there hasn’t been anything to do, as my number one volunteer and colleagues who have been taking up my slack will attest.

Even the moles have been kind. Following a (largely) successful banishment they have been deterred from the lock sides in favour of the scrub at the edge of the golf course. They waited for me to be nearly back on my feet for their most recent incursion so I only have a few days of their work to tidy up.

Just to prove I am back on my 2 feet

If the forecasts are anything to go by it might be a good thing I have had time to rest and put my feet up for a few weeks. Either way, now I’m back there are plenty of jobs with my name on.

Moths in a box

We used to run our moth box pretty regularly to see what was visiting the garden and the towpath but I must admit we’ve got a little out of the habit. With this weekend being part of the annual moth night surveys we dusted off the trap and it was well worth it. Not a record haul but a couple of species we hadn’t caught here before and sone dramatic visitors.

Blood vein hiding in the grass
White Ermine, 1 of 10 to visit
Poplar Hawk Moth, despite its dramatic size and looks they are pretty good at disappearing in the underside of tree leaves

All in all we we logged 46 individual macro moths if 18 different species this morning to add our bit of data to the national records and thousands of participants over the last few nights.

No mow May and go mow May

It’s been the perfect weather for growing. Everything seems to be doing its absolute best to grow, flower and take over the river if it can. While the aims of no mow May might be very admirable, in order to keep the towpaths wide enough for bikes, walkers and dogs to share and places for boats to moor, we don’t have the luxury of a month off.

The last couple of weeks have been crazy busy trying to keep up. I have had some mechanical issues that have slowed me down further but not keeping up is not an option. That doesn’t mean we can’t do our bit and leave some of the areas for wild flowers. I would never have the heart to cut down these bluebells on my mooring line. I personally love the traditional name of Cuckoos Boots. As you can see, there is still plenty of room for everybody to get to their boats, they just have something prettier to look at on the way.

The lock sides may need to be kept tidy but there is always room for a bit of wild. The damselflies in particular seem to like the hemlock water dropwort to sun themselves around the lock at Walsham. I am more than happy to oblige.