The Water Meadow Chronicles, part 17

I am writing this Chronicle at the beginning of April (2021). During this week we have had huge temperature variations. At the beginning of the week we had “summer”. People were out strolling and enjoying the sun. T-shirts, shorts and sandals were in plentiful evidence. There were smiles on everyone’s faces and yet three days later we are in the grip of overcast and very cold weather. There has been a more than 20 degrees celsius shift and we are all back wearing coats and bobble hats. Many have felt the need to call by the local coffee takeaways and walking along the paths in the Water Meadows and the Abbey Gardens almost all that I encountered were clutching beakers of coffee. It was almost as if they were an entry ticket. In reality the beakers provided warmth, especially for those foolish enough to have forgotten their gloves. The cynic would say that we should not be surprised – after all it is a Bank Holiday!

Despite the cold it is great to see so many people out and about. The desperation induced and the restrictions imposed by Covid have certainly led to lots of people visiting the Abbey Gardens and the Water Meadows. Many that I talked with said that they had a new appreciation of these green areas and how close they are to town. All said that they think the Abbey Gardens are a treasure but many also talked very positively about the Water Meadows saying that they are better cared for than they remember. I took the opportunity to tell them of the great work done by our BWMG volunteers and encouraged them to join the group.

One or two people mentioned litter. Sure enough even in the Abbey Gardens there is litter. I think the full time staff in the Gardens work hard to tidy up but far too many people, and they are of all ages, seem to think it is alright to leave their litter strewn on the ground. I fail to understand what makes them think it is fine to do this.

In the Water Meadows there are plenty of bottles and cans discarded by the paths or within a 5 metre throwing distance. The worst spot is the Lark bridge. Not only have bottles and cans been thrown around but several red plastic traffic barriers have been lifted over the metal fence and dropped into the river. Perhaps it seemed like a fun idea to do this on a booze or drug fuelled Friday or Saturday night but all I have heard are comments of disgust and contempt.

The other comments I hear are those of appreciation for this stretch of green. It is getting greener by the day as the leaves on the trees open in a renaissance. The skeletons of the shrubs and trees are increasingly tinged in green. The beech leaves are discernable and the horse chestnut buds are sticky to the touch. The blackthorn’s froth of aromatic white is coming to an end but the alder and hazels’ catkins and the willow buds are a picture of joy. In the place of the snowdrops, which are fading now, we have had crocus and daffodils as well as white dead nettle, purple dead nettle and spotted dead nettle, celandine, daisies, wild garlic and violets. We have enjoyed comfrey and, for those with a sharp eye, there are a few buds of cow parsley. This won’t come into its own until the end of the month but it is a hint of what joy is to come.

The warm, even hot, days at the beginning of the week brought yet more pleasure. Suddenly the air seemed to be full of butterflies. Red admirals, peacock and, especially, brimstones were on the wing. Apparently, male brimstones wake from their hibernation when the temperature exceeds 12 degrees. After feeding on early flowers such as celandine and primrose, which we have in abundance in the Water Meadows, they fly around in search of a mate. As the day cools they seek out brambles; again something we have in abundance, and find shelter on the underside of leaves.

As part of our 2021 biodiversity survey, our volunteer observers have begun to record bird diversity and activity. Having started at the beginning of March, we have been looking at the first month’s data for birds. We should have had last year’s data to compare our findings with but the virus put paid to that. Despite that we have something outstanding to report. Last year, over the whole time period of recording, we saw 37 different types of birds. This year we have already recorded more than 40 bird types. And in only the first month. That is encouraging because diversity is one of our two key elements – how many birds have you seen or heard?. The other element is much more subjective – how do they sound? At the moment my morning walks provide a symphony of sound and song. As I’ve said before, what amazes me most is how much volume can be generated by the smallest birds. Wrens and robins are amazing. This morning it was the turn of a chiffchaff to make my day. Walking along the path between the Lark bridge and the Abbey Gardens bridge, I was bombarded with a chiffchaff of sound. I stopped and looked around. Nothing but noise. And then with a shiver of an ivy leaf less than 10 feet away from me, the little bird blasted me again and again. I was spellbound. Having made its point it seemed to shrug and then disappeared into a thicket of leaves. Concert over!!

Photo: Chiffchaff by א (Aleph), http://commons.wikimedia.org

As you will remember from my opening sentence, I have been writing this Chronicle in early April. Over a period of one week we have had the most extraordinary range of weather. A week ago we had the most beautiful weather. The sun shone all day long and the thermometer hit 23 degrees celsius. Shorts were the order of the day. I mentioned, too, that it had turned colder. And then this morning the thermometer was firmly below zero degrees, the wind was bitterly cold and we had hefty flurries of snow. The Water Meadows had gone from “beginning to look pretty lush” to “let’s keep this walk brisk, short and to the point”. At least the snow did not settle but the view was at the bleaker and more austere end of the spectrum.

Iain Carruthers-Jones

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