Coton Countryside Reserve 2020 diary

January 1.  The traditional New Year’s Day outing took place under mild, overcast skies.  There had been frosts in November, but December was generally mild and wet.  Plants in flower were generally few and far between, with the most frequently flowering species being Veronica persica (Common Field Speedwell).  We started around the information centre, pond and copse, somewhat surprisingly finding one plant of Erigeron acris (Blue Fleabane) still in flower.  We walked along the spine road, then through Middle Green to the Martin Car Park area.  By the pond we found the previously reported Isatis tinctorum (Woad) and a Teasel, which was not as previously reported D. pilosus (Small Teasel) but D. strigosus (Yellow Teasel).  We had our picnic lunch in the Barn, then headed up Red Meadow Hill for a view across Cambridge.  On the way down we added Sinapis alba (White Mustard) in flower.  Continuing via the permissive tracks we eventually re-joined the spine road.  A small group continued round Rowans Field and the Orchard, finding a couple more species in flower.  By the time we returned to the information centre we had made 194 records of 133 species, of which 23 were in flower.   This was the lowest total since we began counting species in flower, and well down on the 58 found last year, and the median number of 35.

March 21.  Numbers on our second walk were depleted due to the threat of coronavirus, but the five that met at Wheatcases Barn kept their distance and enjoyed a lovely spring day, albeit with a biting easterly wind.  We started with the traditional delaying tactic of a walk round the car-park.  Some burrows in a scrape bank caught our attention, and we decided possibly a fox hole that had been taken over by rabbits, which had then been rabitted.  We headed up the hill via the rifle range boundary (with some firing), pausing to admire the flowering Cornelian Cherry, but the top was a bit too breezy for lunch, so we found shelter on the other side.  Whilst eating we saw a Stoat running along the path.  Walking downhill, we continued on to the “lost” Long Meadow, with its large ant hills.  The track provided a new liverwort for the Reserve – Cololejeunea minutissima – which has spread substantially across the county since our 2010 visits.  Turning over a tin sheet we found a couple of slightly dopy Wood Mice.  We headed back towards Wheatcases along Bin Brook, spotting new patches of the invasive Few-flowered Garlic Allium paradoxum, and a clump of Summer Snowflake Leucojum aestivum in flower.  Thanks to the expertise of Kevin Hand the bird total was much higher than usual and we occasionally looked up rather than down.  Overall 99 plant species were logged, with 20 specifically noted as being in flower.

April 25.  The April visit was cancelled because of the coronavirus lockdown.  The Reserve was however still open, so Jonathan Shanklin walked around on the day scheduled for a BSBI beginners meeting, which was also cancelled.  There had been virtually no rain since the last visit and the cloudless skies forecast for the entire day arrived after lunch, giving a pleasantly cool morning.  The visit started in the Wheatcases carpark, with Sweet Vernal-grass by cycle stands.  The Woad by the pond was in full flower.  Leaving Wheatcases I headed up the hill, but there was nothing of great note on top.  Then it was down to the Long Meadow and whilst there was again nothing notable it was a good spot for lunch, with a Greater-spotted Woodpecker drumming in the background.  The new copse at the end of Rowans Field was more rewarding than expected, with a Bluebell and Wild Strawberry.  It looked as if some ground flora had been introduced with the planting, which is quite unusual.  Then it was on to Coton Wood where Norway Maple and Cappodocian Maple both grew.  Walking along the spine road, I crossed the M11 to Bush Field and a monad that we hadn’t previously visited, which proved quite rewarding with over 60 species, although Few-flowered Leek had continued its spread down Bin Brook.  From there it was a short walk back to Wheatcases and the cycle ride home in the sun.

May 25.   The May visit also had to be cancelled, so again Jonathan did a solo walk round, choosing the bank holiday Monday rather than the appointed day.  There had been virtually no rain all month, apart from a heavy shower at the weekend, so the ground was very dry, with large cracks appearing.  It was another hot and sunny day.  Starting at the Coton footpath entrance I did a walk around the copse.  There was no water in the pond.  Then I headed to Rowans Wood and Long Meadow.  Here I spotted a beautifully patterned Common Blue female butterfly.  This seemed a good spot for lunch before ascending Red Meadow Hill.  Heading for Wheatcases Barn I looked around the pond, being surprised at finding a group of Water Avens at the margin, with the invasive Curly Waterweed in the pond – although this doesn’t seem to be a problem in Cambridgeshire.  Going up to the top of the Hill there was another surprising find of Grass-leaved Vetchling and Common Spotted-orchid.  Descending the Hill I paid another visit to Bush Field, but the arable part was disappointing with the typical sprayed margins of the Cambridgeshire arable desert.  From here it was a gentle walk back along the spine road to the starting point, adding only a few more species on the way.

June 24.  Coronavirus restrictions had eased enough to allow a visit limited to six people and took place under cloudless skies on the hottest day of the year to date.  The group met at Wheatcases Barn (complete with Swallows) and started by looking at the pond, which has many introduced species, some of unknown origin.  As we approached, a Reed Warbler announced its disapproval!  Jonathan fished out what he thought was a water-weed, and was surprised to find that it was a Bladderwort, although this had been seen there some years previously.  We had a quick look at the flora of a nearby ditch, but decided it was too steep and nettled for detailed investigation.  We then crossed the road and began the ascent up Red Meadow Hill.  The tenant farmer is clearly of the “old school” and there were virtually no arable weeds, with the “conservation margin” having been recently harrowed.  In a grassy glade near the top we saw a Marbled White along with several Meadow Brown butterflies.  There were deep cracks in the meadow at the top, but Jonathan’s distancing stick showed that they were only about 15cm deep, so not enough to swallow a sheep – never-the-less it was again not being grazed.  This did mean that the Common Centaury was doing very well and there were also a few plants of Yellow-wort.  We returned to the arable, with the white ground clearly showing the presence of the chalk.  The steep bank at the top also supported Field Scabious and Bladder Campion, with stands of Welted and Creeping Thistle – which have a different structure to the hairs on the seeds showing that the former is Carduus and the latter Cirsium.  We had just about got back to Wheatcases when the most exciting find of the day was spotted in a ditch that had only been created a few years ago.  This was Yellow Vetchling, which is listed as Vulnerable in England and is Critically Endangered in the county with over half of the known locations for it now lost.  Amazingly this was a completely new location and it had not previously been seen in Coton west of the M11.  It seems likely that the construction of the ditch had disturbed a long buried seed bank, which gives hope that the plant might return at some of its other locations given some management.

July 29.  Jonathan spent the afternoon searching for some of the rarer plants that had yet to be found on the outings.  In the end he found four of a possible 20, along with Dwarf Spurge and Yellow Loosestrife.  At 6pm a small group of four met at the Coton information board for our final evening walk.  We began with a walk through the wood, but failed to find the Corn Mint that had been (possibly) seen there ten years ago.  We did however see several species of gall, including spangle galls on Oak leaves.  We then failed to find the Strawberry clover that had seen on our first survey between the ditch and field, but there was a possibility that it had been ploughed up.  Continuing along the spine road margin there was the odd plant of Purple Loosestrife – had this come from the currently dry pond? – in which case perhaps the ditch drained the pond rather than feeding it.  Honey Bees were enjoying the Knapweed and there were a few Gatekeeper and Meadow Brown butterflies still on the wing.  We carried straight on at the turn to Wheatcases to see two plants that Jonathan had found earlier – Broad-leaved Spurge and Chicory, which are both on the county register of plants of conservation concern.  At Wheatcases we saw the Betony reported previously by Ray, but also spotted Tufted Vetch and Small Scabious.  Our route back took us along Bin Brook, which was largely too shaded even for Himalayan Balsam, along Rowans Wood and thence to our starting point.

August 23.  Jonathan spent part of the morning visiting parts of the reserve that wouldn’t be covered in the afternoon, re-finding the two species of Shield Fern and their hybrid along the Bin BrookThe CNHS group met at Wheatcases Barn at 2pm.  Skies were mostly overcast, with rain forecast to arrive after 4pm.  We started by looking around the pond, spotting Yellow Teasel in flower.  Looking at the pond itself we saw a Ruddy Dragonfly, which perched on the muddy bank with its wings outstretched – distinguishing it from Damselflies, which can fold their wings.  Meadow Brown butterflies where still present round a species rich hedge margin, and earlier in the day Jonathan had also seen Speckled Wood and Common Blue.  Crossing the road we headed up the hill, looking at a few yellow composites on the way, including Smooth Hawksbeard, Autumn Hawkbit, Bristly Oxtongue and Perennial Sow-thistle.  The orange-brown colour of the achenes of the Bristly Oxtongue was quite striking.  At the top we had a clear view over Cambridge, though looking the other way were ominous black clouds.  Descending on the other side we looked at some planted Field Maple, noting that the samaras were hairy.  Spots of rain began falling when we reached the bottom at 4:15pm and it soon became torrential, though we did stop occasionally.  One stop was to see the much smaller flowers of the Lesser Burdock compared to the Greater Burdock that we’d seen earlier.  It was still raining when we reached Wheatcases Barn, so sheltered there until the rain stopped and we headed home.

September 20.  There were virtually no clouds all afternoon and it was still t-shirt weather.  Having arrived a little early Jonathan took a quick look round to find some galls and thought that there were some on Cherry leaves.  Careful keying revealed that they weren’t galls, but caused by aphids.  A surprise find for Elizabeth amongst one lot of leaves was a Cucumber Spider.  As two members were still missing we started very slowly to walk around the copse alongside the Coton Footpath.  We soon found the galls of Aceria myriadeum on Field Maple, then some very obvious galls of two types on oak leaves along with a third gall on acorn cups.  Another Field Maple added a different gall, with further galls on Beech, Poplar, Hazel and Elm leaves.  A switch to lichens found several different sorts on older trees closer to the footpath, with crustose, foliose, fruticose and soredate types all represented.  We also found the fungus Inonotus hispidus and the liverwort Frulania dilatata.  By the time we got round the copse two hours had gone past.  Jonathan had to go on to Red Meadow Hill, so agreed to walk with his bike along the spine road to see if additional galls could be found.  We eventually found one faded brown Robin’s Pincushion, despite them having been prominent red on many roses on previous visits.  At the end of the day we had identified 12 gall causers but only six lichens, saying something about the ease of keying to identify the two groups. 

October 18.  The autumn had been generally mild and wet, and the day was overcast and damp, so conditions were ideal for fungi.  Jonathan again arrived early and had a quick look along the copse next to the Coton Footpath and found something he’d never seen before, but more of that later.  Once the others in the group of six arrived there was a brief introduction, with Chris Preston explaining a little about the micro-fungi (smuts, rusts and mildews) that he would attempt to identify.  We quickly found a few examples, including some striking ones on Blackberry leaves.  Continuing down the path, Chris found a punk gall on a rose leaf (Diplolepis nervosa), but most of the fungi were deemed undeterminable, until we came across one with a greyish cap, which Jonathan decided was Tricholoma terreum.  Heading back along the older copse next to the footpath we began to find some more recognisable fungi – first a fresh bracket of Inonotus hispidus on Ash, which was contrasted with some older material that was totally black.  Then some young Parasol near the path edge, which was confirmed as Shaggy Parasol when the stem bruised red.  Jonathan then headed deeper into the copse, finding a tiny red fungus, which the guidebook said was one of the most distinctive members of the Mycenae – Scarlet Bonnet.  We were now approaching the area where Jonathan had started, but he couldn’t find what he was looking for, however David eventually found a small rotten log with something claret on it.  This was what Jonathan had found, but when he saw it the material was pink.  Some internet research later suggested that is was a Myxomycete, probably Stemonitis fusca.  Alongside it on a dead stem were tiny white discs of another Myxomycete Diderma hemisphaericum.  Back in the glade Chris showed us an unusual chitinous mildew (an Oomycete) attacking some Common Vetch.  We then had time to go on to the old meadows, which still showed ridge and furrow, but which had been sprayed to remove most species of interest at some time in the past.  Here we found a different range of fungi, including some orange discs on cowpats, some rather distinctive Blue Roundheads (which the book says contain psilocybin), Meadow Puffballs and finally a couple of Snowy Waxcaps.  On the return to our starting point Chris found a rust on an unusual looking willow which after some scanning through the key at home Jonathan decided was a triple hybrid including Purple Willow and Osier.