Wildlife on the River Coquet: Rothbury to Thropton

With the sun shining and temperatures topping twenty degrees, last weekend we opted for a visit to somewhere a little different. Arriving at Rothbury just shy of 10.00 am, and setting off on would turn out to be a delightful six-mile walk West along the River Coquet, it was the botanical diversity of the riverside here that struck us first.

The old stone walls that fringe the North bank river by the town’s main bridge were our first stop and held expansive clumps of Yellow Corydalis alongside Trailing Bellflower, Maidenhair Spleenwort, and Wall-rue, while at their base, Common Mallow, Crosswort and Meadow Crane’s-bill were found.

A little upstream and a slightly more exciting find was Greater Celandine – a species I had not encountered before in the North East. Here too, the nettle-like leaves of Black Horehound were seen and a rather delicate, highly toothed nettle made us pause for thought. Could it be Small Nettle? It would seem so thanks to a quick confirmation from the county recorder. Slightly further West, where the river exits the town, we also encountered Red Currant.

Continuing west along the river, the path side vegetation became lusher. A highlight here was the sight of two Green Dock Beetles locked in an embrace atop a stand of Broad-leaved Dock. A small but exquisite metallic green beetle, they certainly brought a smile to our faces.

Telling of a more open, damp setting, the riverbanks here held Dame’s-violet and Honesty, as well as some lovely Water Avens. Ground Elder was plentiful, possibly even invasive, and both Ground Ivy and Greater Stitchwort were admired.

Soon we reached a large area of open pasture where the river turns briefly South, and while the pasture itself held little other than Meadow Buttercup and an assortment of grasses, the riverbanks themselves were more diverse. Here, Hemlock Waterdropwort was found and the white variant of Common Stork’s-bill grew on the sandier areas alongside a good number of Forget-me-nots. The species of which I was unable to determine.

Owing to a profusion of Gorse, insects here were far more numerous. Focusing briefly on bees, Garden Bumblebee and Gypsy Cuckoo Bee were seen and a small bee spotted feeding on the aforementioned Gorse was likely Yellow-legged Furrow Bee. 7-spot Ladybirds were also seen, as were a few Orange-tip; though the highlight had to be an impressive Two-banded Longhorn Beetle rescued as it floated upside down in a small pool.

Keen to stay on the Northern side of the river, we soon took a detour back to the road, intent on walking the remaining distance to the smaller town of Thropton. The roadside vegetation here was rather lovely with Red Campion and White Campion blooming in abundance, interspersed with the odd plant of Bladder Campion. Common Poppy was also seen, as was a mullein species, while the grassy verges also yielded Common Vetch, Bush Vetch and more Crosswort. Further towards our destination, an old stone wall held a large quantity of White Stonecrop.

While walking the roadside, what I suspect was Buffish Mining Bee was also potted briefly while nectaring on Cow Parsley, and Common Carder, White-tailed Bumblebee and Early Bumblebee were noted, predominately on blooming Hawthorn.

Reaching Thropton, we soon set about poking about the more urban areas, admiring various pavement plants and rummaging about the riverside here. Wood Spurge was a nice find by the roadside and it was interesting to note Purple Rock Cress growing freely in the pavement – clearly having absconded from a nearby garden wall. Red Valarian appeared to be taking hold here too, and Welsh Poppy was numerous. More interesting was a smaller member of the Valarian family: Cornsalad. Likely Common Cornsalad but having read that it is impossible to accurately ID these in bloom, I’ll give up now.

A quick look on the nearby riverbanks yielding a bonny Columbine, doubtless with some garden genes thrown in, as well as both Water Avens and Wood Avens growing side by side. After a little searching, we also found what could be a candidate for Hybrid Avens growing where the two species overlapped.

Close to Thropton, a small burn can be followed North through an area of fairly unexciting pasture. We did just this and while the fields themselves were uneventful, a small wet flush, well-poached by passing bovines, came up trumps. Here Marsh Marigold and Water Mint were conspicuous, and Cuckooflower abundant. An eye-catching white brassica was revealed to be Large Bitter-cress – a new one for me – and it was nice too to encounter a good size swath of Brooklime. The dominant sedge here was tentatively identified by Greater Pond Sedge but really, it could be anything.

Heading back through the town, more Greater Celandine was found, this time invading some delightfully messy flowerbeds. By the local bus stop, Red Mason Bees could be seen visiting a nest site in the dilapidated masonry and a colony of Chocolate Mining Bee was found in the exterior wall of a particularly impressive house. It was exciting to also note the cuckoo of the latter species, Marsham’s Nomad Bee, lurking outside a nest hole.

Having had our fill of Thropton, we soon set off back towards the Coquet, unexpectantly stumbling across an expansive (and beautiful) area of riverside grassland. Here, Bottle Sedge was found in a path side ditch and sandier areas by the river hosted a lovely community of Birds-foot Trefoil, Lesser Trefoil, Cut-leaved Crane’s-bill, Common Vetch and an assortment of clovers. With both White Clover and Red Clover easily picked out, a rather ‘odd’ looking plant soon caught my attention. The pinkish tone of the flowers and lack of white markings on the foliage left me to wonder if it could be Alsike Clover?

With so many flowers in bloom, the insect community here was fantastic. Both Large Red Damselfly and Azure Damselfly were soon found, and a number of exquisite Small Copper flew speedily across the grassland. Present in good numbers but less numerous than the Orange-tips that adorned Cuckooflower blooms across the plentiful damp places. Upwards of eight 7-spot Ladybirds were also found alongside the tiny yet remarkably similar individual pictured below. Having initially written this off as a stunted 7-spot, I now believe it to be 11-Spot Ladybird, an elusive species commonly associated with dune ecosystems. No dunes here, for sure, but the sandy nature of the riverbanks gives some hope.

Finally, on to the undisputed highlight of the trip and the same area of wildflowers also came up with trumps with not one but four Bilberry Bumblebees. Whilst it came as a surprise to note this species low down by the river, we were not all that far from the bilberry-clad hills one would associate with this species.

A striking bumblebee with a delightful, flame-red abdomen, this has to be one of my favourite UK species. A fitting way to end a fantastic summer walk in an area entirely new to us.

Bilberry Bumblebee, Bombus monticola

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