Half-Penny: by the riverside

Today I thought I would try something different and, forgoing the urge to travel in search of nature, opted for a more relaxed approach to observation. Choosing to simply sit, watch and wait in a setting that, more so than any other, has enthused me since childhood: the Half-Penny Wood.

It was the river which held my attention this morning: the water, cocoa brown and flecked with uneven patches of creamy foam, washing past at middling pace as I took up position on a nearby rock. Carrying with it a whole manner of oddities: delicate, fairy-like seeds born of dandelion and thistle, blushed leaves already extirpated from the canopy above and, occasionally, a stonefly – latticed wings glinting in the sun as the insect hitched a free ride downstream. The only sounds to be heard here, at first, coming from the quaint bubbling of the water as it snaked its way around the many boulders dotting the channel, and the mew of a Buzzard circling vulturine overhead. A good start.

The sounds of nature descended and disappeared as I waited by the river, unsure of what exactly I was waiting for yet oddly full of hope. The shrill hweet of a Chiffchaff concealed amid the riparian vegetation and the sharp, singular flight call of a passing woodpecker delivering welcome music to my ears. These initial signs of life followed, in turn, by the varied notes of Robin, Nuthatch and Great Tit and, later, the soothing purr of a Woodpigeon watching suspiciously from the twisted upper limbs of a Wych Elm. Wonderful sounds, each indicative of my love of the wood and her verdant reaches yet all forgotten as a piercing whistle found my ears. A familiar precursor to joys to come as, within seconds, a sapphire blur crossed my line of sight. The bird, a Kingfisher, disappearing as soon as it arrived leaving nought but a smile and a vague sense of accomplishment. I would not have seen it had I opted to walk.

Equally as appealing as the blue of the Kingfisher today was the flush of pink engulfing the river bank to the left of where I sat. The combined result of an amalgamation of the countless blooms of Himalayan Balsam and daintier flowers of Herb-Robert. The flushed portion of the bank, rife with bell-shaped and vibrant blooms, eventually instigating my departure as I set about combing through the jungle of brittle stems in search of life. Life that was soon found in the form of myriad bees and wasps painted white by the pollen of the waterside invader.

To my surprise, most of the bees observed today were Honeybees – buzzing too and fro between flowers boasting a conspicuous dusting of what almost looked like icing sugar. The sight of a few Common Wasps was equally welcome, however, given news of recent declines. I know that, as a conservationist, I am supposed to loathe balsam, and to an extent, I do begrudge the damage it causes. To floral communities, to riversides and human interests. Today, however, with more insects seen around this tiny portion of the bank than during the rest of the outing combined, it was hard to scorn it. This alien botanical may be problematic, but the bees certainly like it and I, personally, quite like the sickly-sweet smell of ombrophilous balsam growths too.


Departing the wood in a hurry, only two more sights gave cause to pause. The first, a conspicuous pile of gnawed, green hazelnuts a telltale sign of another, much more damaging, invader thriving in the wood at present – Grey Squirrels – and the second, a sign of illness. Rhytisma acerinum or Tarspot, as it is commonly called, is a fungi which infects the leaves of Sycamore – turning previously chlorophyllin foliage into a mosaic of black-brown lesions, bordered with yellow. It is quite harmless and does not do too much damage to the tree it infects; though it does make for an interesting picture.

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