Riley's Ramblings

An occasional posting of the thoughts of our honorary member Mr Riley
                           
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Call me Eccentric........ May 2017


...........call me anything that comes to mind but some of the best times of my life are amongst the wildlife I love so much. Spent 7 hours visiting Catcot Decoy Hide, English Nature's Shapwick Heath Nature Reserve and the RPSB's Ham Wall in Somerset with a birdwatching colleague - we did the rounds. Huge amounts of birds despite the overcast skies and a razor's edge wind. From the Catcot Decoy Hide watched a pair of Great Crested Grebes building their floating nest. We wished the construction well. would it get washed away or submerged in the promised heavy rain? The sky was flecked with hundreds of House Martins.and later at Ham Wall Swifts were screaming over the lagoons.



Walking through Shapwick Heath we trained our glasses on 12 Cattle Egrets and a single Little Egret. 20 years ago you would never have seen these birds in the UK - more likely on a holiday in southern France or Spain. And whilst the Cattle Egrets were not in breeding attire they will undoubtedly nest here like the Little or Great White Egrets. What will we gain or lose as climate change tightens its grip? A pair of Grey Lag Geese had two goslings and in the lagoon Shoveller and Gadwall Duck, Pochard and Tufted.



At Ham Wall we missed the Bearded Tits and Glossy Ibis but saw a male and female Marsh Harrier quartering the reeds - forever looking for an easy meal - a Reed or Sedge Warbler. We stood in silence for a while looking out across the huge waving expanse of reeds and beyond the looking glass the magical, beguiling Avalon Marshes - a wall of sound from the Sedge and Reed Warblers - restless visitors from warmer climes. The sharp explosive calls of Cetti Warblers and the melodious songs of Blackcaps, Garden and Willow Warblers blended with the metallic chinking of Reed Buntings. Wow, isn't this the stuff that life is made of? Apologies, photography not up to much but you get the idea!


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I walked out on Subday - September 4th

The Quantocks appeared a little menacing with low cloud draped over the heather - crowned tops of the hills. The scents of Autumn after a day's rain were heavy in the air - that sharp, earthy organic aroma that so characterises Autumn.
House Martins were in more deliberate flight in contrast to their aerial displays over Fiddington the other day. Now they were flying south in purposeful flight. During my walk there was a near constant accompaniment of male Robins  laying claim to territories - to the human ear the sweetest of all songs at the mellowest time of year yet to a rival male a threat of extraordinary malice and intent. 
Wild flowers speckled the verges and banks though fewer now than a month ago, redshank, herb robert, red campion, mare's tails, clumps of stately purple loosestrife in the wet ditches, common mallow, wild teasel,yarrow, woundwort, water mint, greater burnet saxifrage (the most beguiling of all wildflower names), giant hogweed and common yellow toadflax.



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What a waste - 6 October

Some of the most glorious wild flower displays are on waste land – brown field sites.
Following the dredging of a drainage ditch alongside our garden we have seen the most mesmerising kaleidoscopic display of wild flowers this summer  - from the mud and debris scraped from the banks and floor of the channel the dispersed waste has revealed a veritable pot pourri of scents and colours a re-seeded and re-stocked area of field margin.
Even now in this bonus September weather the blooms may not be as vibrant as they were in July but they hold on tenaciously as the warm, rain-free  days persist. So below a sky still full of chattering house martins and just a few swallows common evening primrose with its large canary yellow trumpet blooms flower surrounded by yellow chamomile, spear thistle, columbine, nipplewort, feverfew, yarrow, scarlet pimpernel, woundwort, red poppy, purple mullein, fat hen and prickly sow thistle – okay not the most glamorous sounding wild flowers and by far the most common but it does make for an early Autumn blush of colour. And, what is more , visited by ruddy  common and black darter dragonflies as well as a host of bees. These might very well prove the last sip of nectar for these hungry insects before winter creeps in!
Spreading themselves far and wide across the wooden benches of Noah’s Hide at Sharpwick my fellow birdwatchers with their panoply of equipment tripods, high powered scope/cameras, binoculars and wheeled ‘caddies’ to store the paraphanalia in transit seemed more than a little reluctant to spare room  so I squeezed unceremoniously between them  - they shuffled just a little but hardly enough to make the difference between a comfortable seat and a slightly awkward perched posture.  I did make the point that my birdwatching began in the sixties with a pair of ex-army 8x40’s and resolutely continues with the barest of equipment. A pair of 10x50 glasses. The elder of the group smiled at my barbed reference to modern excess and did his best to pre-date my  early birdwatching activities. 
All glasses were focused on a single Osprey perched on a bleached submerged alder . It had been there, sentinel pose, for a good 2 hours adjusting its position so that the occupants of Noah’s Hide were given a view of its front then of its back for a good half hour or so before the bird changed its aspect of the lagoon. Funny people, we birdwatchers. Some in the hide has just sat there for a good 2 hours or so awaiting that magical moment when the bird would take off to do a spot of lagoon fishing. The Osprey needs only to catch one good sized fish a day to sustain . It has probably originated from its summer nesting haunt in the Scottish Highlands or may well be one of a few pairs now nesting in mid Wales or even closer, Rutland water. They stop over at places like Shapwick Heath  ( I saw them gather in similar fashion on the Spanish island of Menorca) to refuel  before continuing their 3,000 mile migration to West Senegal in sub Saharan Africa where they will spend our winter before the homeward trip. I say ‘homeward’ guardedly – I once got into a heated argument with a group of South African birdwatchers who attempted to persuade me that swallows were African birds – I pointed out that being born in the UK meant unequivocally that they were British birds. They were simply on vacation in Africa.
At last the Osprey took off to a gasp from the waiting watchers. By then I’d left the hide.  It planed over the lagoon but if it did drop on a meal that long awaited moment was screened by trees and reeds. 

I walked to the ‘scrape’ where some 17 Knot had gathered. This wading bird from the north gets its name from the habit of ‘knotting together’ – they stand in large clusters. Then there were some 70 Black-Tailed Godwits on a spit of land along with a Great White Egret and several Little Egrets. I missed a single Ruff but did get to see a Water Rail – normally quite reclusive – dashing for cover amongst a clump of reeds. A birdwatcher had watched a Sparrow Hawk surprise a Chiffchaff carrying it off in a pitiful puff of feathers. From time to time I had the explosive call of a Cetti Warbler – since my last visit the reed beds now no longer bristle with the non -stop chatter of Reed and Sedge Warblers. Most of us are blind to the appearance and disappearance of our migrants –  we are ignorant of their perilous journeys  to reach our shores and then to fly south for the winter. Most of us don’t even bother to look up when the Swifts make their screaming, early morning aerial display flights careering  between the old wharf buildings at Bridgwater in June and July. They’ve been gone for nearly 6 weeks and will have already arrived in South Africa – a never ending cycle of skybound living. The natural world calms and soothes –  it is steadying, an anchor in troubled times.

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21st August


There are places I remember all my life… some have gone and some remain’
By David Riley
The words of Lennon/McCartney seemed appropriate as I made a pilgrimage to one of my favourite places. 
We all need an escape, a release valve a place of respite, an adjournment in our busy modern lives. Yet Governments seem unduly occupied by creating distractions rather than ensuring a quiet peaceful environment.
 Take for example the planned introduction of unmanned drones programmed remotely to convey mail and packages to our homes or simply to discreetly spy on our every movement. The terrifying spectre of a brave new world! As if our skies are not already bristling with noise and clamour from civilian aircraft, military jets, helicopters and thrill-seekers strapped to gliders with spluttering garden mower engines filling our skies with noise, commotion and pollution. One good example is the East Quay going towards the shopping centre bridge over the Parrett at Bridgwater. The reed-fringes of the river have been occupied by nesting sedge warblers this summer as they are every summer – yet their voices are barely heard above the din of the traffic. Am I the only person to stop and listen to their earnest calls? It seems incomprehensible that these migrants have flown 3,000 miles from sub Saharan Africa to nest in Bridgwater only to be ignored - not a single soul caring to stop and listen!
In mid August I returned to one of my cherished places – Pit Hill lane. It meanders amongst lush hedgerows and cathedral-like domes formed by overhanging trees for about 2 miles connecting the Polden villages of Moorlynch and Sutton Mallet. To the north a gentler verdant swell of hills punctuated by copses and farmsteads and to the south the flatlands dissected by gleaming rhynes a drowned landscape in the winter yet in the summer a rich fertile plain grazed by sheep and cattle.
On this August day my progress was interrupted by sudden scudding heavy showers quickly replaced by long periods of sunshine when the dark clouds peeled away to the horizon to reveal a deception of the deepest blue sky. Like myself small tortoiseshells, gatekeeper, common blue and red admiral butterflies dashed for cover under the overhang of the trees. Along the verges the last gasp of glittering summer blooms shone in the sunlight – their fading elegance a reminder of our own lives and the cruel passage of time that stamps its influence on all living things.
And as if to strike the strongest metaphor for the last of our summer wine – a cluster of deadened stalks from a once vibrant, musky throng of hemlock – the stalks clattered like busy knitting needles. The hollow stem husks will provide weather-proofed refuge for ladybirds during the colder months. 
Purple patches of slender-leafed knapweed, the pink profusion of flower heads from great willow herb, the yellow daisy-like heads of sow thistle, the stately spears of purple loosestrife, the dazzling white of yarrow, dainty filigree heads of rough chervil and scentless mayweed – last of the summer blooms and all visited by the insects sensing these last days of plenty.
I struck off south down Pit Hill towards the meandering snaking line of trees that hold a rookery. Only two months before it would have been busy with the swirling flocks of rooks , the air rent with the shrieking petulant cries from the fledglings high in the 50 or so nests that smudge the tree tops along the valley. Here the chiffchaffs were calling, not the familiar two syllable call but a thin, persistent ‘sooeet’ ‘sooeet’.
Along the edges of the wood grew the most showy, blousy yellow flowers of common fleasbane – yet despite their name and reputation they did bejewel the edge of the wood with thick smudges of yellow as bright as spilt paint. In the fields meadow vetchling and St. John’s Wort remained in flower. There was the ever present mewing of buzzards and the musical, guttural croak of ravens – a hoarse, husky call – a real smoker’s voice.
Here and there the hedgerows were flecked by a bright canary yellow from common toadflax – it embroidered the hedgerows, weaving in and out of the branches reaching up to gain the optimal light and warmth from the shortening days.
The hedgerows dripped with early autumn fruit, privet berries, blackthorn sloes, dog rose hips, elderberries – it seemed that all of nature was preparing, girding itself for the darker, crueller days ahead.

And as a final salute to summer a large gathering of house martins filled the sky hoovering up the insects whilst back in Moorlynch swallows were starting to assemble on the overhead wires.


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Monday 11th August


Never one to let an opportunity slip by I was on BBC Somerset last Saturday morning - the Simon Parkin Breakfast Show - apart from the diet of current affairs I managed to plug the EFRS Blog to the 15,000 or so listeners tuned in to BBC Somerset at that hour of the day.
Big Bertha the much vaulted hurricane is in the western approaches and is likely to convey a number of irruptional bird visitors not usually seen on our shores from across the Atlantic. Apart from that it may disrupt those summer migrants on their way south pushing them east across Europe  diverting them away from their usual migratory corridor.
Huge clouds of house martins and some swallows blacken the sky above our village - Fiddington near Cannington. The Quail family has left our field for sunnier climes. These birds have declined rapidly over the last 30 years since the disappearance of the traditional hayfields. Now landowners mow their grass in May for silage and again in August - this also affects the populations of nesting pipits and skylarks. Talking to a farmer the other day he said that grass cut for the first time in August (the traditional time to make hay) is poor without the nutritious value of earlier cuts. It serves as a lightweight dessert for cattle!

I maintain that for the sake of the larks, pipits and quail it should be made mandatory for each farm to set aside a good 20 acres of land  mown in August as was the practice years ago when farmland birds flourished.

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Thursday 17th July   Be careful of what you ask for…
I applaud what conservation bodies such as the RSPB are doing to bring back some bird species from the precipice of UK extinction though when such bold efforts are extended to invite the stealth killer eagle owl into our diminishing pockets of English countryside I have to wince at such wind driven incaution.  But should I? There might be method in this seemingly uncalculated aspiration. Would, for instance, the reintroduction of the wolf curb the increasing and damaging populations of roe, red and fallow deer or the wild boar that have resolutely  moved from ‘ romantic  flashback to the middle age status’  to a now alarming, damaging and sometimes dangerous natural forager?
Since the banning of the pesticide DDT in the 1970’s there has been an almost exponential increase in the populations of raptors in particular buzzards, red kites and sparrow hawks. This latter species is now seen as a severe threat to the survival of racing pigeon lofts and the demise of many a valuable racer not to mention farmland song birds. I once saw a car sticker saying ‘Pesticides don’t kill songbirds – sparrow hawks do! So when sparrow hawks, and by the way their very name has nothing to do with the disappearance of house sparrows from our towns, villages and countryside, start to earn a bad reputation  the results of the conservation efforts begin to be called into question.  Confronted recently by the death and destruction of 4 blackbirds at the mercy of a male sparrow hawk I began to query the increasing imbalance of once laudable conservation works.
I was in Loxley Wood the other day – it’s an ancient woodland owned by the Woodland Trust lying alongside the A39 on its northerly flank between Shapwick and Ashcott.
The discovery of four piles of black feathers – four cock blackbirds - within a short distance of each other along one of the woodland tracks actually means the destruction of a possible 16 blackbirds as the partners of each would have undoubtedly deserted their clutch of 4 eggs/ nestlings each.
Overhead buzzards mewed almost continuously, inside the wood, well into the shady depths, there was no sound other than the sigh of the wind in the trees. This is the quiet of the year.  And, by the way, the Woodland Trust has transformed and restored Loxley Wood from a lifeless conifer plantation to a deciduous woodland with a spring carpet of bluebells, celandines, cowslips and primroses. Well worth a visit.
So if we do officially agree to reinstate the Eagle Owls – they probably occurred in the wild about 400/500 years ago, then controlled numbers (there are currently 40/50 breeding pairs probably immigrants from Sweden) might have some impact on those species currently enjoying their inviolate reign of terror at the top of the food chain?
So back to Loxely Wood, with a near constant serenading from blackcaps and chiffchaffs (late singers) I walked along the main path beneath the new growth of hazel. The track was bejewelled with purple loosestrife, bugle, St. John’s Wort, willow herb, dog mercury and common fleabane the latter just emerging into bloom. At this time of year walk down any Somerset lane and the aroma of meadow sweet fills the senses with a heady, intoxicating fragrance that dulls all other summer scents.
Butterflies were plentiful  in the sunbeams glancing through the tree canopy. One in particular was the pearl-bordered fritillary – flying fast and furious I could not keep up with the speed of its flight.
According to the Butterfly Conservation Society ‘the swooping flight of this large and graceful butterfly is one of the most beautiful sights to be found in woodland during high summer. A large fast flying butterfly, separated from other fritillaries by its pointed wings and silver streaks on the undersides which can be viewed as it stops to feed on flowers such as Bramble’
Other butterflies included the meadow and hedge browns, a small skipper, peacocks, red admirals, commas and small tortoiseshells.  Despite the irregularity of our weather and the influence of climate change there appears to be no real change in the appearance of butterflies, they are out on cue and whilst in much lower numbers make their appearance, with second and third hatchings at the appropriate time of year. Some things don’t change – their steadying, predictable influence a  permanent anchor and welcome relief in the obsolescence of modern living.
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Thursday 19 June
Where have all the flowers, butterflies and birds gone?
In the words of the folk song ‘where have all the flowers gone? Well, actually, grubbed up for our need for cheap food and whilst we’re on the soap box where have all the insects, butterflies and birds gone? Decimated by chemical sprays and insecticides. Oh, yes, you said it, for the availability of cheap food!
Whilst at Catcott Heath Nature Reserve in mid June I came across a naturalist with a really professional interest in dragonflies and quite able to identify emperors and four spotted chasers in flight and from a considerable distance. The magnificent large emperors cruised powerfully picking off the insects amongst the sweet smelling bog myrtle.
On a perfect sultry butterfly day we looked across the expanse of the Heath and not a butterfly was in sight. 50 years ago this very same spot would have been flecked with a myriad colours from dancing insects – now not even a small white made an appearance. He’d recently visited three nature reserves celebrated for their butterflies – yet in several hours of fruitless searching he’d seen precisely 8 butterflies. He, like myself, mourned the passing of butterfly summers when blizzards of the insects could be seen in the most unexpected places and without the benefit of nature reserves.
Now, 50 years later we create ideal reserves, the collective intelligence of well educated, highly gifted environmentalists yet for all their hard work seemingly unable to re-create the halcyon days.
A month makes all the difference at this time of year. A month ago I was on Catcott Heath Nature Reserve spending 3 hours on the Heath and in the Carr Woodland – that’s a unique micro-climate where alder, birch and oak grow well on the damp peat their roots unaffected by the constant water saturation. The whole area has a rich, earthy aroma and is a crucial habitat for special birds and insects.
On that day in late May I could not recall hearing so many willow warblers, their bubbling cadence was everywhere – like the sound of a small brook wandering over its pebbled bed. It’s the sound of summer, like the corn buntings jangling their keys in the burning heat of a midday sun or the soft cooing of wood pigeons in the cool shade of a forest dell.
Our visit to the Heath was serenaded by two cuckoos calling to each other across the Heath. The lagoons and their reed-filled edges were bristling with the songs of Sedge and Reed Warblers – so the cuckoos had rich pickings for their devilish deeds.
The drove to the Heath was an exultation of song from cetti and garden warblers, whitethroat, blackcaps and chiffchaffs. With the temperature in the mid 20’s we entered the Carr Woodland. Deep within the wood with its sunken trees and sweet , organic aroma we watched a spotted flycatcher picking off the insect harvest in a series of acrobatic swoops always returning to a favoured twig.
Now, a month later in mid June  I again found myself on the Heath - the birds are less vocal the serious business of rearing broods concentrates the mind and the energy. There was a cuckoo, probably one of the same birds we’d heard calling in May. Within 2 weeks the cuckoos will be on their way back to sub Saharan Africa.
Ragged robin garlanded the walk into the Carr Woodland with water hemlock whilst on the Heath bee orchids and spotted orchids grew discreetly, hidden amongst the tussocky grass.
Back to the beginning. My world of plenty has passed.  A world when flycatchers were so numerous darting after insects, when corn buntings jangled from every fence post, when swallows and martins blackened the sky. But now insect populations have crashed, I recall long car journeys with my parents in the 1950’s when every so often father would have to wipe clean the insect corpses smashed across the windscreen of the car. At the end of the journey the radiator grill would be obscured by a mat of butterflies, bees and other insects, the bonnet stained and streaked. Pesticides have done a grand job. Now you hardly see an insect to trouble the windscreen. The absence of insects means an absence of birds. As for the butterflies we create expensive well planned wildflower fields spawned from years of collective intelligence but we seem unable to bring back the good times there is nothing left of the vast clouds of butterflies that once coloured our landscape. The new generation of conservationists have never known those times of plenty, they are therefore content to live in a world of less, their expectations influenced by their own experiences.
My new found acquaintance and myself stood in silence looking out over the Heath at a place so agreeable for butterflies yet denuded of even a single small white!

We stood together in  sad wordless longing for a time that may never return.
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Sunday 18 May
The oak before the ash….
… and we shall have a splash!

How true this late Spring. A fine feather-like tracery of leaves  on the oak whilst the ash was still in skeletal winter pose with just a hint of bursting black buds at the tips of the branches.
So no soak this year?
After 16 years living on the Polden Hills we finally left the gentle uplands for our new home in Fiddington – a pleasant-enough spot within sight of the Quantock Hills and endlessly changing skies foretelling weather moods hatched over the Bristol estuary and the Welsh hills.
The verges are a riot of colour lacking the barbarous zealous manicuring of the Polden lanes. Here, for the most part, wild flowers are left to bloom and seed – they grow in variety and abundance. Creeping flows of polished white lesser stitchwort, stately parades of pink campion, drifts of wild parsley, clumps of purple bugle and late flowering alexanders.
My photographs hardly give justice to the generous splash of colours.
In the fields the golden medallions of dandelion have been replaced by a gleaming yellow ocean of buttercups – walking across the fields my shoes are dusted in a fine yellow pollen.
And as I write this article in mid May the hawthorn blossom hangs sweet and redolent on the warm evening air smelling strongly of marzipan. By day the branches of the trees sweep low across the fields and along the hedgerows weighed by their thick plumes of blossom. Along the banks of the streams ramson or wild garlic floods in a froth of white with clumps of flowering dead nettle.
By April 11th the swallows and house martins had arrived from Africa and whitethroats had begun to call from the hedgerows.
Shortly after re-locating to Fiddington we discovered a pair of mistle thrushes had taken up residence in the fork of a honeysuckle-smothered tree. Despite renovation work on our new home the thrushes remained steadfast to the job of incubation. The photograph, taken by a friend, shows the female sitting tight and fearless.
There appears to be a healthy population of badgers in the district with huge earthworks . One evening in the gloaming we just missed the emergence of a local family – our dog unwittingly appearing at the entrance to a large sett only to be alarmed by a warning grunt as the badger retreated down the wide passage.
Walking along a hedgerow one morning our collie dog, Sasha, flushed a small badger . It had been skulking at the foot of a hedge the dog’s sharp sense of smell driving it from cover. It lumbered along the path towards me failing, with its short-sightedness, to recognise my approach from the other side of the path. It was only my voice calling off the dog that made it suddenly  aware of me –  a rapid stage right was performed under the fence and hedgerow and  into the adjoining field.

Grey Wagtails stay with us all year round as do pied wagtails, only the yellow wagtail is a visitor from the Mediterranean.
I came upon a pair of grey wagtails along a fast flowing stream both banks accessed by a small ornamental bridge. My first introduction to the grey wagtail was a nestful of young wagtails secured between the reeds alongside a chalk river in Sussex. I was 15 years of age and the sight of the parents returning to the nest with bundles of insects  was courtesy of a passionate mentor one of many inspirational people that coloured my formative youth in the pursuit of nature.



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Thursday April 17th
'A crisp, sunny Spring morning in Fiddington - that's a little village nestling seductively in the foothills of the Quantocks. I am privileged - Samuel Taylor Coleridge probably walked these parts a stone's throw from his cottage in Nether Stowey where he created the 'Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner'. I was neither walking in fear and dread nor was I turning no more my head... I was in my element. My dog Sasha put to flight a young fox in the most pristine condition. The reddest, most russet coat you could ever imagine. She was gaining on the animal before it ducked under a fence crashing through a fast flowing stream. The banks of the stream were drowned in Ramson or Wild Garlic - their white starred flowers drifted like virgin snow along the banks. Alexanders - the earliest flowering member of the Parsley family was attracting brimstones and orange tipped butterflies. Amongst the thick crop of garlic were clumps of dead nettle with their clusters of white flowers.
Walking over a maize stubble field I flushed two Shelduck an unusual sighting in this arable desert.'

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12 April 2014
In full flood

I am writing this in mid April – the name comes from the Greek word meaning ‘opening’ and on the Polden Hills at this time of year the word is appropriate as new life sings out an exultant message. The woods are carrying their sweet fragrance to the hills above – that faintest breath of bluebells, primroses, cowslips and violets. The familiar songs of our resident birds that have lifted our spirits in the short, dark winter days, now compete with the molten liquid calls of summer migrants.

Never a week is the same. Now the rate of change is measured in days rather than weeks. Everything is moving at a breathless pace – change is in the blink of an eye. By late March newly hatched brimstone and orange tip butterflies were on the wing, along the verges cow parsley had started to flower and in the damp ditches delicate cowslips seemed to spring up almost overnight. The woodland tracks have thick cushions of the deepest mauve violets. The drifts of blackthorn blossom smother the southerly face of our woodland – the hedgerows alternate in striped hues of fresh green hawthorn leaves and the white blossom of blackthorn. Walking along the bank of a pond I came across a clump of snake head lilies and skulking in the lee of hedgerows the white blooms of dead nettle – the most endearing nettle harmless to touch.

In the third week of March the Mediterranean birds arrived in our woodland – first in full rich throaty song in the garden on March 18th – it was only a matter of time before their song filled the woodland on our south facing Polden hillside. By now at least 5 chiffchaffs were in serious competition. From the hedgerows yellowhammers were repeating their ‘little bit of bread and no cheeeeese’ song.

In my recollection of childhood days on the Sussex downs I return constantly to the little rookery that luxuriates deep in a cleft that is forever Sussex amongst the rolling hills of my youth. In my memory the rookery is raucous with the cries of the rooks and the yelping of the jackdaws. A keen wind from the English Channel chases over the tops of the downs but deep within this rookery wood that wends its way hugging contours there is a stillness and warmth that pampers and deceives.

Such is the character of Pitt Hill rookery between Moorlynch and Sutton Mallet on the Poldens. I love this quiet place – the birdsong in the narrow belt of ash is amplified by the sharp bluff of the south-facing escarpment  at this southerly point of the Poldens. As I sat on the ridge overlooking the rookery feverish with the petulant cries of nestling rooks and the endless cawing of their anxious parents. I was a voyeur. For I have my privileged vantage point peering into this well ordered society, disciplined and structured, watching the fledglings with bright orange mouths signalling for food. There are getting on for 90 or so occupied nests in the rookery – disparate and distributed with certain trees preferred and others excluded.

Sitting on Pitt Hill there is a calm that is absolute and found nowhere else on the Poldens. Troubles dissipate. Peace dwells here, breathing as it does from the flatness of the levels, stealing across the empty miles to distant spires and hamlets beyond the King’s Drain, playing amongst the bare frieze of solitary trees, the secret channels of water now delineating the flatness as the floods of recent months recede, the black peat and the tussocks of grass where skylarks and meadow pipits enjoy a secret, unseen, undisturbed rhythm.

Along the edges of the sliver of woodland patches of cowslips and primroses stabbed here and there amongst the veil of green that now trails over the hawthorn. From within Pitt Hill rookery I could hear blackcaps and garden warblers back from the Mediterranean – liquid songs that seemed to gush like molten metal filling the woodland – chiffchaffs called repeatedly and willow warblers with that cascade of song filled me utterly. 


I was back in the spring of my youth  - these were the birds that had captivated me in my early teens and, happily, still do to this very day.




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16 February 2014
Spring on hold

Rooks are intelligent, really clever – they know something that we don’t. For a start they can predict weather with uncanny precision.  After all they build their platform nests in the topmost branches of tall trees. They need to be more than just crystal gazing! They are exposed and vulnerable to the excesses of our Island weather they are also ravenous when it comes to soil pests. So whilst in any normal late winter rooks would already be repairing their homes it seems that the colonies have delayed this activity pending a restoration of normal service in the weather. As I write in mid February there is an end in sight, the last of the Atlantic tempests have passed on to the near continent, we might just be glimpsing the start of spring!  Walking along Pitt Hill between the villages of Moorlynch and Sutton Mallet raised above the flooded levels on the high wind blow ridge of the Polden hills I looked down upon an empty rookery. Only a short distance away and like a huge mighty ocean the flooded fields slapped the very edges of the hills in a gusting wind – I could see geese, ducks and swans riding the wavelets. Only a month before I’d walked along a drove that was now completely submerged. There was an errie silence – it seemed a hostile, sinister environment. Hedgerows bristling with migrant birds in the summer barely showed above the water.

What Parliamentarians say in times of crisis never ceases to amaze. Take the floods in the Somerset Levels.  Government neglect and financial austerity when it comes to Environment Agency funding have now been admitted yet before this admission there was a flourish of spiteful and unwarranted criticism of the millions spent on the creation of bird reserves, reed filled marshland and water catchment ‘sinks’ up and downstream as a means of collecting and distributing water seemingly at the expense of the human population. More recently we’ve been better educated  - now we know that successive Governments have allowed the EA to be under-funded. So the absence of dredging in our rhynes and rivers can be fully explained. What is certain is that flooding benefits no one, mammalian or avian – they all suffer. There is little doubt that the wild populations of rare water voles and water shrews have taken a severe hit. The communities of bank voles, short tailed voles, and common shrews and long tailed field mice have been decimated.

Wading birds require shallows where they can probe for invertebrates – the depth of water creates problems – ducks and geese find little sustenance from the deep water now swallowing pastures. Owl populations have crashed – their natural hunting fields having been snatched from them by the floods. Keeping rhynes and rivers well dredged and deep enough to carry the volume of water away from kingfisher nesting sites, from human habitation and the homes of all living things seems to make good sense. There is interdependence. Everything depends on a landscape that is harmonious and well managed, unyielding to the extremes of weather – creating scapegoats is simply not the way forward.

Earlier in February I’d walked through Shapwick Heath nature reserve to Ham Wall. En route I’d been serenaded by cetti warblers and the squeals of water rails from deep within the reeds. In a lagoon families of gadwall, teal and tufted duck plied backwards and forwards – a gentle, timeless serenity. It seems to me we, in our frenzied lifestyles we have something to learn from their sublime quiet, unhurried ways. I met a colleague at the second viewing platform along the Beeching-axed railway track at Ham Wall. I’d just missed a green winged teal – an elusive north American visitor blown off course by the Atlantic storms.  The lagoon in front of us was smothered in teal, wigeon, shoveller and mallard duck.

My diary for the visit records: ‘We walked to Noah’s Hide – on the way the scrape was flooded and held little but a small group of tufted duck. Once in Noah’s Hide we looked out onto a scene to gladden the hearts and minds of birdwatchers. The lagoon was a rich tapestry of duck, a palette of myriad colours – shoveller, wigeon, tufted, teal, gadwall, pintail, pochard with greylag and canada geese. On the far bank stood the sentinel shapes of grey herons and a great white egret.  All around ducks were taking off and alighting  - they saturated  the flooded lagoon with hardly a foot between them. I don’t recall seeing so many duck. Later a kingfisher arrowed passed the hide carrying a small fish . As I walked back to the Ashcott road cetti warblers were still exploding like shotgun fire  from the reeds and on a pile of coppiced branches a handsome reed bunting alighted’.

The first day of Spring – today – February 15th – at least it looked and felt like it after a month of near continuous rain and wrecking winds.  I walked with a four legged companion to Billicombe wood nestling in the curve of the crescent woodland, lo and behold a few disparate primroses in bloom…

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