MNA Coach Trip Miller’s Dale Derbyshire 23rd June 2018

A wildlife packed day walking the Monsaldale Trail along Miller’s Dale – the third in our series of Derbyshire Dales. Some of our long standing members mentioned that we had in fact visited here before – way back in 1994! Good views of an adult and juvenille Dipper and Grey Wagtails on the River Wye. Woodland birds are now singing less but we did hear Willow Warbler, Blackcap and Garden Warbler along with a Sedge Warbler in a reedy area. A really extensive wildflower list, butterflies including Meadow Brown, Ringlet, Common Blue, Speckled Wood and even Brown Argus. Insects were enjoying the sunny glades and umbellifer heads with Ichneumon Wasps, Sawflies and gazzilion Hoverflies.

Dyers Greenweed

Greater Knapweed

Bloody Cranesbill


Devil’s-bit Scabious

Rust Fungus Puccinia poarum on the leaves of Colt’s-foot Tussilago farfara

Blue Bottle Calliphora vomitoria

Sawfly Tenthredo livida

Lime Green Sawfly Tenthredo mesomelas

Red Legged Shieldbug Pentatoma rufipes – final instar nymph

Drone Fly – Eristalis tenax – female

Tachina fera

If you are interested in the wildlife of the north-west of England and would like to join the walks and coach trips run by the Merseyside Naturalists’ Association, see the main MNA website for details of our programme and how to join us.

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MNA Coach Trip South Stack 9th June 2018

Fabulous visit to South Stack RSPB reserve with some lucky members viewing Orcas! As well as the tiers of nesting Guillemots, Razorbills, Kittewakes, Fulmars etc. there was plenty of activity from Choughs and a whole host of minibeasts and wildflowers. Here’s a few pics from the day.

The Lackey Malacosoma neustria

Leaf Beetle Cryptocephalus aureolus

Harry & Les examining a Rose Chafer Cetonia aurata

Rose Chafer Cetonia aurata

English Stonecrop Sedum anglicum

Yellow-tail Euproctis similis


Corpse of the Day – Common Shrew Sorex araneus

If you are interested in the wildlife of the north-west of England and would like to join the walks and coach trips run by the Merseyside Naturalists’ Association, see the main MNA website for details of our programme and how to join us.


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Port Sunlight and New Ferry Butterfly Park, 10th June 2018

On another wonderfully warm and sunny day we went to Port Sunlight with yet more trees in mind. Port Sunlight is a model village built for the workers at the Sunlight Soap factory by William Hesketh Lever from 1888 onwards. It is now a conservation area with a wonderful stock of Arts and Crafts houses and the Lady Lever Art Gallery. Near the south end of the estate is a small valley called The Dell, with some fine specimen trees. There is a Gingko and a very large Tulip tree, which we were delighted to see was in flower. Amazingly, the flowers smell of chocolate!

Two adjacent Lime trees appeared to be from different species. The one with the sprouting, twiggy trunk and flower stalks hanging down was a Common Lime Tilia x europaea while the one with a clean trunk and sticky-up flowers was a Small-leaved Lime Tilia cordata. Limes are very hard to distinguish, but they are easiest at this time of year.

Small-leaved Lime with flowers sticking up

Near the bridge was a small Swamp Cypress, with a Dawn Redwood on the opposite bank. By the side of the path was the only surviving puddle in the area, which was a magnet for a bathing Blackbird, a family of Blue Tits, a Chaffinch and a Goldfinch. Beyond the bridge was a Honey-Locust Gleditsia triacanthos with long, fierce spines on its trunk.  The Antarctic Beech, which we remember well from previous visits, was nowhere to be found (has it died?) and we have never spotted the Wollemi Pine, which is rumoured to be here. One tree, which we had never noticed before, is something of a mystery. It’s not much more than a rounded bush yet, bearing “ace of spades” leaves with red tinges and reddish stalks. The branches were notably smooth to touch and the leaves appeared to be arranged in threes. There was no sign of any flowers or fruit to give us a clue. It could be something quite unusual, because it’s in a place where they plant interesting specimens. I have an idea that it might be a young Dove Tree / Handkerchief Tree, which is just the sort of thing they would plant there, but we will need to keep an eye on it in the future.

As we were passing Christ Church we spotted a very large-leaved tree. Blow me, I think it was the very rare Moose-bark Maple Acer pensylvanicum! It’s by the fence off Church Drive, with a sign saying it was planted by the Women’s Institute. There were no visible seeds to confirm the ID, and the bark didn’t look like it belonged to the snake-bark group, but the large three-pointed leaves were very characteristic.

The churchyard had several Weeping Ashes, each with big bunches of forming seeds called “ash keys”. It seems to be a bumper year for Ash seeds. Were the Weeping Ashes all planted at the same time? They look similar to each other, but perhaps they aren’t as old as the church, which was built 1902-1904. William Hesketh Lever was a member of the congregation and both he and his wife are buried in “The Founders Tomb” attached to the church.

We lunched in the Rose Garden at the south end of the central drive. All along towards the Lady Lever Art Gallery is a double avenue of Limes. They weren’t twiggy at their bases so they weren’t  Common Limes, but the seeds were all hanging down, so they weren’t Small-leaved Limes. The leaves were dark green and dull, while the forming seeds showed signs of five ridges. Could they all be Large-leaved Limes?

In the sheltered central courtyard of the Garden Centre there is an old Olive tree in a huge planter, which may be the only Olive on Merseyside. It won’t fruit in this climate, though. There is also an Indian Bean Tree at the exit, near where they sell the garden sheds. The leaves are huge, and it is just showing early flower buds.

By the War Memorial and along The Causeway are five False Acacia trees Robinia pseudoacacia. They blossom like Laburnum, but all white. Their flowers are sometimes only thinly-produced, but they are having a spectacular year, and look magnificent just now.

Then we wandered along Greendale Road to the Judas Tree between numbers 32 and 31. It is an unusually big tree for its species, but sadly it looks like it is in some distress. There were some late flowers still hanging on, though.

The New Ferry Butterfly Park occupies some old railway sidings just over the road from Port Sunlight. They have planted all the food plants required by our native butterflies, on the principle of “build it and they will come”. It seems to be working.

They also have a pond containing many Smooth Newts, which are regularly netted by kids doing pond-dipping, before being returned to the water. The poor creatures must be used to it by now. Two species of Damsel Fly, the Common Blue and the Blue-Tailed, were there in good numbers, some mating, and all moving far too fast for a picture. There were also several individuals of the dragonfly Broad-bodied Chaser, with blue males and brown females. Then our first butterfly, a Meadow Brown.

Dog roses were out, both pink ones and a dark red variety.

The meadows held both Marsh Orchids and this one, which some thought was a Pyramidal Orchid, but which might be one of the Spotted species.

Several Brimstone butterflies were seen in rapid flight, and we identified a small tree that is one of their food plants, the Alder Buckthorn. The leaves are wider near the tip and the flowers are clustered against the stem. Just as we had decided what the tree was, a Brimstone flew over and landed at the top, confirming our ID.

Wild flowers included Hogweed, Bramble, Valerian, and this lovely Viper’s Bugloss.

There were Speckled Woods in the shady areas, and our best find of the day was this splendid male Large Skipper, sunning itself on Bramble and hoping to attract a mate.

Public transport details: Train from Central at 10.15 towards Chester, arriving Port Sunlight station at 10.32. Returned on the train from Bebington Station at 2.52, arriving Liverpool Central at 3.07.

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Childwall woods and fields, 3rd June 2018

Childwall is a suburban village in south Liverpool, mentioned in the Domesday book and older than Liverpool itself. We wondered if Childwall Woods were ancient woodland, but the nature reserve signboard says they were planted in the 1700s as part of the garden of Childwall Hall. On a hot and sunny day we welcomed the cool shade with its continuous birdsong – Robin, Chaffinch and probably lots of other we couldn’t identify. The woods are mostly a mix of tall Beech and Sweet Chestnut trees, with an understory of Rhododendron and Privet. The leaves of the Rhododendrons were all clean, with no sign yet of the Cushion Scale Insect infestation Pulvinaria floccifera, which makes the leaves black and sticky. There was a lot of it about when we were last there in June 2015 and we have often seen it since when we were out and about, and some of us have had it in our gardens. The edges of the paths had lots of Wood Avens, also known as Herb Bennet Geum urbanum, with small yellow flowers and round heads of hooked seeds.

Then we emerged into the sunny open fields, which were covered in Buttercups.

The damp patches had clumps of Goat Willow and Yellow Flag, Brambles were starting to flower, and the drier parts had masses of Ragged Robin.

In amongst the tall grass and flowers were several orchids. The flower heads were purple and conical and some said they could see spots on the lower leaves. The signboard said the meadows supported both Common Spotted and Southern Marsh Orchids, and we thought they were probably the latter.

This is the sort of place where we would expect to see Swallows, Swifts or Martins zipping about for the insects over the meadows, but there were none. Are they still all held up by bad weather on their migration route? They are very late!  The Elder flowers were coming out, but they hadn’t started producing their scent yet. We thought that one of the small wayside trees was a Downy Birch Betula pubescens, with upright branches and brown bark. The Hogweed and Cow Parsley lining the paths made a marvellous display.

There are said to be 16 species of butterfly here, but all we saw was a small white one, whose underwings looked like it was a Green-veined White, but which had dark spots on the upper wings, so was probably a Small White. A Chiffchaff was calling, and we stopped to listen to a loud bird call from the trees below. It was repeating in threes and fours, but it wasn’t very inventive or melodious. Surprisingly, we heard the same kind of song in the same place three years ago, and thought it might have been an unskilled young Song Thrush. Could it be the same bird three years later, who has learned nothing, or a younger generation with the same poor taste in song, or is it something else altogether?  From that spot there is a good view north-eastwards over to Huyton Church tower in a wooded dip and Prescot Church spire on the skyline.

We lunched in the Garden of Remembrance behind Childwall All Saints church. It’s Grade 1 listed and the only mediaeval church in Liverpool, with a 14th century chancel and a 15th century south aisle and porch.

The Bird Cherry tree there was just past its flowering, but in late June 2015, nearly 3 weeks later in the year, it had just been coming out. We looked at several trees in the churchyard. A purple-leaved one seemed to be an obvious Sycamore variety, but the new seeds had their wings straight out, just like a Field Maple. The leaves were far too big for that, and there is no suggestion in any of my tree books of a purple form of the Field Maple, so I guess it was just an aberrant Sycamore.  Another tree had us foxed. It had narrow shiny green leaves, alternate, with pale undersides, and a few dangling strings of pale brown woody-looking catkins. We thought it was something from a hot climate, and at home I looked up things like Olive, Bay and Portuguese Laurel, but now I think it was just a Holm Oak, looking untypical because it was spring-fresh. Our third interesting tree was some kind of young Fir near the War Memorial. The upright fat cones near the top of the tree were covered in bracts and looked unstable, as if they were about to disintegrate. The needles were all upswept. Those cones suggest one of the Silver Firs, genus Abies, while the upswept needles mean it was probably the common Silver Fir Abies alba. However, all those conifers are still a bit of a mystery to me!

We headed up past the Childwall Abbey pub, with a Buzzard soaring overhead, and re-entered the woods by a different entrance. A pair of Speckled Wood butterflies were courting in a patch of sunshine. A Jay flew into the top of a nearby tree.  On the trunk of a fallen Beech was a couple of slimy yellow patches, each about 2″ (5 cm) across, probably the unpleasantly-named Dog Vomit Slime Mould, Fuligo septica.

Near the Woolton Road roundabout there used to be two huge and overgrown Leyland Cypress trees, a hazard to traffic when one fell, and its twin has now been cut down. They have recently been replaced by two much smaller and daintier trees, still with their nursery labels attached. One is a pink-flowering Cherry Prunus ‘Accolade’, while the other is a white-blossomed Pear Pyrus calleryana ‘Chanticleer’. According to “London’s Street Trees” by Paul Wood, the Chanticleer Pear is now much-planted in London and is one of the most common street trees in New York City. The “survivor tree” from the 9/11 attacks is a Chanticleer Pear. Finally, we hoped to “tick” Laburnum, which we have unaccountably failed to note for the last few weeks while it was flowering magnificently, and we still didn’t see any on our walk today, but there were plenty in the suburban gardens, spotted from the bus on the way back into town.

Public transport details: Bus 75 from Liverpool ONE bus station at 10.25, arriving Woolton Road / Childwall Park Avenue at 10.50. Returned from Woolton Road opposite Cabot Green on the 78 bus at 2.20, arriving City Centre at 2.45.

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Calderstones Park, 27th May 2018

Calderstones Park has the greatest collection of rare trees in the north-west of England. Everywhere you look there is something wonderful, and we have only scratched the surface in identifying them. The plant collector was called Charles McIver, a Liverpool shipping magnate, who was one of the founders of the Cunard Line. He lived on the Calderstones estate from 1875, and most of the rare plantings are thought to be his. Liverpool Corporation bought the estate in 1902, then the adjoining Harthill estate in 1913, making a park of 126 acres altogether.

We entered the park at the south-west entrance, off Allerton Road, where there is a carpet of Pink Purslane under the trees. It was another hot and sunny day, and we soon found we were all wearing too many layers! The flowers along the Rhododendron and Azalea Drive were superb, with the yellow ones producing a knock-out scent.

In the nearby shrubbery is a Giant Sequoia (Wellingtonia) Sequoiadendron giganteaum, with its lower branches sweeping the ground and rooting (called “layering”). Surprisingly, it is much younger than it looks. It is called the “Churchill Tree” because it was planted for the death of Churchill in 1965, which makes it only 53 years old, plus however old it was when it was planted. Younger than all of us!

North-west of the playground, near the Monkey Puzzles, there is a tall Oak stump with two outcrops of wavy yellow bracket fungi. It’s a rather splendid fresh-looking growth of Chicken-of-the-Woods, also known as Sulphur polypore. It’s edible, but you’d need a ladder!

There is a Grey-budded Snake-Bark Maple Acer rufinerve on the other side of the path, behind the fence around the shrubbery to the south-east of the flower garden.

The Mansion House is being refurbished, and about time too. The Reader Organisation has raised over £5 million for the project, and they are planning to convert the garden theatre around the back into a wedding venue, which will provide continuing income. Happily, they will also be providing new public toilets, as the old ones have long been a disgrace.

East of the Mansion House we spotted something with pale yellow flowers and five-fingered leaves that we identified as a Yellow Buckeye Aesculus flava.

It’s in the same genus as our common Horse Chestnut, and Mitchell’s book says many Buckeyes are grafted onto a Horse Chestnut rootstock. This one obviously was, with a very low graft, because Horse Chestnut leaves were sprouting out of the bottom. In fact, it was three trees in one because a tiny Yew had germinated in a fork at head-height.

The Black Mulberry tree Morus nigra looks half-dead, but plenty of leaves are coming out and it seems to be thriving.

Near to it was some kind of young Cypress, with cones about ¾ inch (2cm) across, which were almost dodecahedral, with a point in the centre of each scale. We opened one, and there were lots of seeds inside, and the broken scales exuded resin. There was no particular smell. I looked it up later, and I think it’s a Smooth Arizona Cypress Cupressus glabra, which isn’t particularly rare.

A clump of three Redwoods in the shrubbery south-east of the Mansion House had foliage a bit like Dawn Redwoods, so I think they are Coast Redwoods Sequoia sempervirens. We checked off some old friends for our year list: Douglas Fir; Japanese Red Cedar; the Golden Rain Tree, also known as Pride of India, which is hidden in a dark corner by the old loo block and shaded by Yews (this is tragic – someone should let some light in onto it); the Turkish Hazel outside the gallery; and the mighty Lucombe oak, Quercus x hispanica ‘Lucombeana’, a hybrid of Turkey and Cork Oaks.

The Dove tree / Handkerchief Tree Davidia involucrata by the path around to the Old English Garden is now shedding all its white bracts, which give it the “pocket handkerchief” nickname.

We lunched overlooking the flower garden, where the Corpse of the Day was a dead hedgehog on the edge of one of the lawns.

The Old English Garden is rumoured (by Richie the Ranger) to have once contained every plant mentioned in Shakespeare, but I have no idea if anyone has checked recently! We did a quick walk-around, looking for some real oddities mentioned in a very old leaflet, but didn’t find them. Then around by the Allerton Oak, which is at least 700 years old, but popularly reputed to be 1000 years old. It is now fenced off but still going strong, and produces thousands of acorns each year. Nearby is the moribund Cedar of Lebanon; the Shagbark Hickory Carya ovata, which is the Lancashire county champion for girth and height; and the young Paperbark Maple in the Rockery. We stopped by the big Tulip Tree, hoping to see it in flower, but no luck. We hope for some blossom in Port Sunlight in two weeks time.

There were slim pickings for birds on the lake. Moulting Mallards, two pairs of Coots noisily seeing off one poor timid Moorhen, Herring Gulls and feral Pigeons. One pair of Canada Geese had a single tiny gosling, and one of the proud parents was announcing it to the world.

Then we headed southwards towards the exit, by now hot and weary. The main path is lined by an avenue of notable trees, American Limes Tilia americana, also called the American Basswood. It’s listed in Mitchell’s book as rare, found only in a few collections, but here there are dozens of them. One of them is the Lancashire county champion for girth and height, although it’s hard to know which one, as they are all so uniform.

So far on our Sunday walks we have “ticked” 73 bird species and 110 kinds of tree. Not bad for an urban area!

Public transport details: Bus 86 from Liverpool ONE bus station at 10.23, arriving Mather Avenue / Ballantrae Road at 10.53. Returned on the 86 from Mather Avenue / Storrsdale Road at 1.55, arriving Liverpool City Centre at 2.25.

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Sherdley Park St Helens, 20th May 2018

I popped into St John’s Gardens on the way to Lime Street Station to check on a couple of notable trees. The Indian Bean tree, which is always one of the last trees in leaf, has just the first shoots breaking out amongst last year’s dangling bean pods. The Dove Tree / Handkerchief Tree has a few flowers out, with their lovely white hanging bracts, but not very many, sadly. (The two in Calderstones were flowering spectacularly last week.)

We were last at Sherdley Park on a freezing day last November, so it was good to see it when it was warmer and less muddy!  Behind the fence of Sutton Academy were some Red Horse Chestnut trees (Aesculus × carnea) in flower. It is an artificial hybrid between A. pavia (the American Red Buckeye) and A. hippocastanum (the English Horse Chestnut).

It was a hot and sunny day, so we were glad to walk the shady paths around the pond. There were the usual Mallards and Canada Geese, and a family of four young Coots. The air above the water had a blizzard of insects, but where are the Swallows? They do seem to be late this year. The trees were full of birdsong, and we spotted Mistle Thrush, Treecreeper, Long-tailed Tit and a Carrion Crow. In the autumn the paths are carpeted with fallen Beech leaves, but Beeches also shed vast quantities of unpretentious flowers in the spring, making a second annual carpet.

Another tree flowering just now is the familiar Hawthorn or May Blossom. There are also many Hawthorns in gardens with double pink blossom. It’s a different species, the Midland Hawthorn Crataegus laevigata, which has white flowers in the wild, but the pink one is the cultivated variety ‘Paul’s Scarlet’.

Near the children’s playground is a Swamp Cypress, one of only two I know of in Merseyside parks. There were also plenty of Whitebeam, Rowan and Swedish Whitebeam in flower, and near the entrance to Delph Wood was a magnificent billowy Narrow-leaved Ash on the edge of the path called The Score. We noted all three common species of Oak. The English or Pedunculate Oak has acorns with stalks (“peduncle” is the botanical name for the stalk), while the Sessile Oak has unstalked acorns. Oddly, the leaves are the other way around, so Sessile Oaks have stalked leaves while Pedunculate Oaks have leaves that grow close to the twig.

Sessile Oak with stalked leaves

Pedunculate Oak with unstalked leaves

All Oaks have catkins, but they usually grow so high up that we don’t notice them. This Turkey Oak had several low branches and was flowering splendidly.

In Delph Wood we noted Specked Wood butterflies and an occasional Orange Tip. The trees are a typical mix of Beech and Hornbeam, Ash and Sycamore, Oak and Horse Chestnut, and lower down there is Hawthorn and Elder. In a damp spot by an open meadow we found a single orchid, still only a bud, but it seemed to be going to be dark purple and not very tall. One of the Marsh Orchids I imagine. Red Campion was popping up everywhere.

We came specially to look at the Bluebells. There wasn’t a huge carpet of them, but many scattered patches. They appeared to be hybrids, but with a lot of native in them. The flowers mostly drooped to one side and had curled-back petals and white pollen, which all suggests native Bluebells.

However, they weren’t deep blue, but rather pale.  Other patches were clearly Spanish, with upright stalks and flowers all around.

Just to note that there is a Wildflower Identification training day on Wednesday 6th June, on the  Liverpool Loop Line near Sainsbury’s on East Prescot Road. Organised by Sustrans and led by Lancashire Wildlife Trust’s senior ranger John Lamb. It’s free but you need to register.

Public transport details: Train from Lime Street towards Wilmslow, supposed to be at 10.30 but delayed by Arriva Northern until 10.48 because there was no guard. Arrived Lea Green 11.13. Returned on the train from Lea Green at 14.01, arriving Lime Street 14.28.

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Chester Zoo Nature Reserve, 13th May 2018

Chester Zoo has had a free nature reserve on the far side of its car park for a couple of years, but they have recently enlarged it to 14 acres, so we thought we’d take a look.

The original reserve is a small planted woodland, still with only very young trees. They all appear to be native species, as they should be. I noted lots of Cherry and Crab Apple; Birch, Oak, Beech and Ash; Rowan, Field Maple, Hornbeam, Willow and a few very small Scots Pines. The Hawthorn “May blossom” isn’t yet fully out, but the Bird Cherry has loved this late winter and sudden spring and is flowering most profusely at the moment.

Near the “grass amphitheatre” we spotted what looked like an animal track detector. Some sheets of white A4 paper were either side of some pink, slightly sticky dye with an attractant in the middle.

We looked closely at the paper with the footprints, and there were plenty of them, but it was hard to say what had made them. They were under an inch wide, say about 2 cm, and had three forward- pointing toes and one on either side. Too small for a Rat and too far from the canal for a Water Vole, so I guess they were made by some kind of mouse. Later we met the local naturalist Jeff Clarke and asked his opinion. “Indistinguishable!”, he said.

Many of the path verges were planted with masses of Red Campion and something with tall pointed leaves. It took a while to recognise them as Teasel, before their flower heads have come up.

The leaves of the young Cherry trees were well-marked with holes and chewed edges, so there is plenty of small insect life about. There was a Harlequin ladybird on one, and a native Two-spot lower down on the same tree. The Two-spot Ladybird is common, but thought to be declining.

There weren’t many birds there, as it was a pretty flat, open area and a bright sunny day. We heard a Great Tit calling and spotted a Buzzard overhead. It felt like a day for Swallows and House Martins, but we saw only one fleeting Swallow later in the day. They are late this year. One pond held a single bathing Mallard, while the lowest pond, overlooked by a hide, had a Moorhen and a family of Coots, with three black and red chicks.

Near the edge of the canal they have an old Black Poplar, which they are very proud of.

A signboard told us that there are currently only about 7000 Black Poplar trees left in the UK. 95% of them are old trees, most are genetically similar, and to make it worse 90% are male trees, too far away from the few remaining female trees to fertilise them. Chester Zoo is part of a team working to save these native trees. They have planted over 1000 young ones in the last 15 years, propagated by cuttings from as diverse a population as possible, and they have put male and female trees close together. The little plot with the signboard had two of these young Black Poplars side by side, one male and one female.

There were plenty of Molehills in the grass, and we saw Small and Large White butterflies and an Orange Tip. They are running a meadow experiment on this former fertilised farmland. One plot has been left to its own devices, and they expect it to grow only thick grass. The second has been harrowed and planted with wildflower seeds, but they expect the grass to out-compete them. On the third plot they have removed the fertile topsoil, but added no seed. They expect this one to  grow both grasses and flowers, but it will take a long time to become a proper meadow.  It’s a bit early for their proper wildflower meadow yet, but there were Buttercups and Ribwort Plantain along the edges.

As we were leaving, I was still checking the young trees, and I found a young Elm. Hooray! It was almost certainly a Wych Elm, not the now-scarce English Elm, but Wych Elms are also susceptible to Dutch Elm Disease and are in decline, so it was good to see a young one.

Before we left we popped into the part of the zoo before the pay gates and had a look at the elephants. A wild Rabbit loped up the path to the elephant house, so that’s another mammal tick!  We intended to get the very fast X8 back to Liverpool, but it was late. When it was 15 minutes overdue, we gave up and got the number 1 to Bache Station and then the train. As we left the zoo on the bus, we saw our X8 heading in, so we should have trusted it would come!  At Bache Station a Chiffchaff was singing from the opposite shrubbery, and we saw a Holly Blue and an Orange Tip flitting about the rails and hedges.

Public transport details:  Bus X8 from Sir Thomas Street at 10.20, arriving Chester Zoo 11.20. Returned on bus 1 towards Chester at 2.32, arriving Liverpool Road / Countess Hospital at 2.40. Around the corner to Bache Station, and train to Liverpool at 15.03, arriving Central 3.45.

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Old Roan to Maghull, 29th April 2018

We descended to the canal via Wally’s Steps, off the A59 at the Old Roan. They were named after a local angler, Wally Crebbin, who fought the council in the 1980s to restore access to his favourite fishing spot on the towpath, after the building of new housing. Wally died in 2008 aged 97, but his steps are now an essential part of the Trans-Pennine Trail.

There were no unusual birds about on the water, just the usual Mallard, Coot and Moorhen. There were lots of Coot’s nests in the reeds, one apparently abandoned with a solitary egg, and this one with a mother and two punky red-headed chicks.

Several Mallards had two or three ducklings with them, but the prize was taken by this mother with thirteen!  They stopped for birdseed, but when they were motoring along they took up the whole width of the canal.

There were Bluebells coming out all along the towpath (not the native Bluebell, of course) and about a third of them were white ones. The Cow Parsley had nearly unfurled, and below it were White Dead-nettle, Red Dead-nettle, Ground Elder, Comfrey, Herb Robert, Chickweed, Ribwort Plantain, thousands of bright yellow Dandelions and absolute masses of Garlic Mustard, also know as Jack-by-the-Hedge.

Corpse of the Day was a belly-up dead fish with red fins. A Roach? We saw another further along, too. Do they die natural deaths after spawning at this time of year, or was there something nasty in the water?

We were interested in a plant growing right on the edge of the canal, with its feet in the water. The leaves were tall and pointy but otherwise suggested Dock. The book tells me there is a plant called Water Dock that looks like that, Rumex hydrolapathum, so that was probably what it was.

It was sometimes sunny, but with a cool breeze. Still hats and gloves weather. A few cyclists and joggers came past, but not the hordes that emerge on warmer weekends. We lunched by Hancock’s Swing Bridge at Wango Lane and when we re-joined the path we saw that the Canal and River Trust have joined the fight against the feeding of bread to water birds, saying it “Doesn’t fit the Bill”. Their posters also urged families not to concentrate feeding in just a few favoured areas, but to “Spread the Love”. Clever, that.

Trees starting to leaf or bud included Hawthorn, Ash, Whitebeam, Apple, Elder, white Lilac, and a tree with pale soft newly-emerged leaves and abundant flowers. A Field Maple. We know it well later in the year when the leaves are dark green and shiny, but we didn’t know it flowered like that.

We hoped to see Orange Tip butterflies, considering the abundance of their food plants Garlic Mustard and Lady’s Smock, but we didn’t see any butterflies at all today. Lady’s Smock is also called Cuckooflower, Mayflower and Milk Maids, and was abundant all along the damp verge. It did attract a single bumble bee, though, with a dark abdomen and a gingery, hairy thorax. Although I didn’t get a proper picture to study at leisure, it must have been a Common Carder bee because the only other common bumblebee with a ginger thorax is the Tree Bumblebee, and that has a white ‘tail’.

Apart from the waterfowl, there were the usual hedgerow birds like Robin, Wren, Chaffinch, House Sparrow and Blackbird. An occasional Reed Bunting flew from one side to another, where there were patches of reeds, while near Melling we stopped to listen to a stream of fast, scratchy chirps and cheeps coming from dense reeds on the other side. Without doubt it was a Sedge Warbler. We searched the reeds and brambles with binoculars, but Sedgies are notoriously skulking birds, and we never did see it. There was another one further along and we didn’t see that one either.

Near Maghull, we spotted the old WWII pillbox guarding the railway bridge. Not far before that, at the site of the former Clare’s Swing bridge, the narrow place was completely blocked by reeds and debris. We had already commented that we hadn’t seen any narrow boats coming along, and that was why. It has to be cleared in time for the summer boating season, surely.

Just before the end of the walk we passed the newly-restored milepost showing 12 miles from Liverpool. All the old mileposts were replaced and restored in 2016 for the canal’s 200th anniversary. We had seen the “9” just after we set out, so we covered over three miles today. Hard going for some of us, but at least it was flat! Then over the pedestrian bridge, past Frank Hornby’s house and we got to Maghull station just in time for the train.

Public transport details: Bus 345 from Queen Square at 10.15, arriving Aintree Lane / Old Roan Station at 10.45. Returned from Maghull Station at 2.30, arriving Liverpool at 2.50.


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Thornton Hough, 22nd April 2018

We have had several hot and sunny days (was that summer?) but it was blessedly cooler today. There was a heavy rain shower in the morning as I set out, but it held off for the rest of the day. We experimented with a different way today, because of impassable miry paths on our usual route. (Thanks, John, for the recce).  We still hoped to see some boxing Hares, though.

We got off the bus near Claremont farm and walked down Clatterbridge Old Road. All the hedges were bursting into bud or flower. The Blackthorn was out, as was the native wild Cherry. Buds were well-formed on the Hawthorn. Under the hedges the Garlic Mustard was just coming out and the Cow Parsley was nearly there. The much-derided Dandelions were putting on a splendid bright golden show. The trees were all on the go too, with Norway Maple putting out its froth of acid-yellow flowers and the young leaves of Copper Beech a wonderful bronzy red.

Norway Maple

Copper Beech

There was a Cock Pheasant in a ploughed field, and later we saw another flying over a hedge and clucking furiously. A Buzzard circled slowly overhead, and a group of a dozen or so little brown birds on a wire all went down onto the ploughsoil together. They were probably Linnets. A Blue Tit flew off from a tree hole, where it was probably nesting. There were early Bluebells by a fence, and Yellow Archangel and Green Alkanet in the grass. We crossed the motorway by the footbridge, walked around the Clatterbridge roundabout and took “Thomas’s Path” past Claire House. A male Bullfinch was on the path, but it flew off as soon as it saw us. We could hear it calling in the hedgerow but we didn’t see it again.  The gnarled Ash trees in the flailed hedge were putting out their new leaves and Wych Elm was in flower.

Ash shoot

Wych Elm flowers

Back amongst the fields we noted clumps of Lesser Celandine and the new leaves of Field Maple. A fast-flying dark butterfly turned out to be a Peacock, then we saw a Small Tortoiseshell, and finally a male Orange Tip near the old black-wrapped hay bales and the abandoned farm machinery, where we lunched. There were dark clouds threatening so we soon pressed on. One recently-planted hedge had four or five young Oaks in it. They hadn’t leafed yet (oaks are usually late) and were still carrying last year’s dead brown leaves. We were amazed to see hundreds of Marble Galls on each of them. What an infestation!  We have never seen so many, clustered on the young trees like bunches of grapes. You would almost think the trees were dead, but they probably aren’t. They had a few different-looking galls on them, too. On last year’s twigs, just a few of the leaf buds had been turned into something that looked like seed heads.  None of the descriptions in “Oak-galls in Britain” by Robin Williams seemed to match and I wonder if the raggedy ones were old Artichoke Galls?

In the same hedge there were these lovely red buds, which were probably Crab Apple.

Many of the fields were full of the bright yellow flowers of Oil-seed Rape (Canola).

Under them were multitudes of Speedwells (probably Common Field Speedwell) and the occasional Common Fumitory.

Around the farm (Rocklands farm?) there are several interesting ornamental trees over the hedge, including a Himalayan Birch with bright white bark and long dangling catkins, a Copper Beech and a Cedar, which might just possibly have been a Cedar of Lebanon, but we weren’t able to get near enough to be sure.  We came out onto Thornton Common Road at Crofts Bank Cottages and headed down the road into Thornton Hough village. John and Margaret looked into a field hoping for Hares (no luck with them at all today) and spotted two Red-legged Partridges. We admired the huge Monkey Puzzle tree at the entrance to the village. Then, to our surprise, four vintage buses came along and waited outside the Post Office until a fifth old bus came along to join them. Then they headed off towards Neston. What was that about?

Some of us got the 1.45 bus back to Liverpool, while the rest of us stayed for a further hour. We headed up past the school towards Grange Lane, where I was sure I had seen a Japanese Larch last year. Blow me! It wasn’t where I remembered it and we couldn’t find it at all. We did see a Collared Dove on the ground though, a Song Thrush rootling about by the side of the path and some Rooks in the rookery beyond the corner shop called “The Store” (see top photo). In the churchyard was a Deodar Cedar, a lovely small Weeping Cherry bearing pink blossom and a young Whitebeam with upright leaf buds like magnolia flowers.

On the way back on the bus we looked out for two marvellous garden trees that we had spotted on the way out.  One was a Sycamore of the variegated pink-and-cream variety ‘Brilliantissimum” which at this time of year was a mound of new leaves that looked rather like a delicious fruity dessert. It is in Bebington near the junction of Heath Road and Abbot’s Drive. The other was a grafted Cherry which had both red and white blossom on the same tree. It was on Brimstage Road, near the junction with Beechway.

I was determined to photograph a Japanese Larch in flower, and there is one in Alexandra Park in Crosby. I had a look at it on the way home. Here are its amazing little inch-tall female flowers (2.5cm), like crimson fireworks. The commoner European Larch will be doing the same thing at the moment, so keep your eyes open for one. Its flowers are a deeper red and the foliage is a darker green.

I also went to check on the Crosby Foxglove Tree that was blooming this time last year. (Follow that link for last year’s post, which says where the tree is.) Although the book says they oughtn’t to flower until late May, last year wasn’t an aberration for this early tree, and it’s just coming into flower again. Alas, it seems to have suffered from the prolonged winter, and the flower spikes bear disappointingly few blooms.

Public transport details: Bus 487 from Sir Thomas Street at 10.29, arriving Brimstage Road / Clatterbridge Road at 11.02. Returned on the 487 from the stop opposite the Seven Stars pub at 2.45, arriving Liverpool 3.25.

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Botanic Gardens, Churchtown, 15th April 2018

We had a very long run on the bus, an hour and twenty minutes, which took us well past Southport and into the lovely “thatched cottage” village of Churchtown. Although the Botanic Gardens were our main destination, we dropped into the tiny North Meols Civic Garden on the way.

A small tree of Goat Willow Salix caprea was in flower, with the stamens breaking out of the “Pussy Willow” buds.

The Forsythia was in bright yellow bloom and just over the fence a Wren was singing its heart out at the top of a fir tree.

At the entrance to the Botanic Gardens they were celebrating the 100th anniversary of the founding of the RAF with a red, white and blue “bullseye” flower bed, decked with RAF flags.

We went to look in the aviaries first. There were four or five Peacocks, but no Peahens in evidence, some geese and Guinea Fowl, and pairs of several rare pheasants – Golden Pheasant, Lady Amherst’s Pheasant and a black and white one which I think was a Silver Pheasant. The enclosures are made of very close-grained mesh, so it was very hard to get good pictures of them, but I had reasonable success with the male Mandarin duck.

On the lawn outside the Fernery are two tall, pointed Dawn Cypress trees with their ropy trunks, but no foliage yet because they are unusual in being deciduous conifers. There is also an old Mulberry in a flower bed there.  We sat outside the Fernery to eat our lunch, and admired the very lovely early cherry tree by the lakeside. Then we heard a distinctive call, and a Ring-necked Parakeet flew into the tree and started picking the lovely pink cherry blossom. The cheeky little tyke!  It was systematically stripping the petals off and eating something at the base of each flower, perhaps the nectar stores, and one by one the discarded petals fluttered down to the lawn beneath.

There were Mallards, Coots and Tufties on the lake, and beside the path north of the upper bridge was a Bhutan Pine and also a young Atlas Cedar (called “Ceder” on the label), which was a green one, not the usual blue variety ‘Glauca’. The Horse Chestnut buds are all breaking now, with the sticky cases still hanging on to the stem, the young leaves drooping, and the baby flower spikes just emerging.

There was a female Blackcap in one tree by the lake, and a Nuthatch was “chipping” loudly from the top of another.  At the southern end were several Mute Swans and a Collared Dove.  We had a look in the Fernery, which is being surveyed and re-stocked with the help of Edinburgh Botanic Gardens. We spoke to one of the Friends of the park, who said they have another large building behind it, which they could easily heat, and they are thinking of making it into a tropical butterfly house. That will be popular!  Then we shopped for some bargain plants. Miniature daffs were going for only 50p a pot!

Public transport details: Bus 47 from Queen Square at 10.10, arriving Preston New Road / Cambridge Road at 11.32. Returned on the 49 bus from Botanic Road / opp Botanic Gardens at 2.06, arriving Southport Monument at 2.18, then the train at 2.28, due at Central Station at 3.15.

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