The Water Meadow Chronicles, part 22

One of our biodiversity recorders said to me recently that not much seems to happen in the Water Meadows in the winter months. I responded saying that is true in a way. We have our “house” bird population which is magpies, other corvids, pigeons, robins etc and it seems rather dull and familiar. I try to keep my eyes and ears open for transients. Geese etc. I’ve also tracked daily corvid movements. Hundreds of corvids overfly us in the early morning heading north and they overfly us  going south at dusk. They don’t usually touch down in the Water Meadows. Where do they come from and where do they go.? My guess is they roost in the area of Nowton Park and Sicklesmere; they  probably head to feed at a rubbish tip on the north side of town. Have you seen them? It’s like a daily commute.

Interestingly, their behaviour in the evening/gloaming has changed lately. They may be checking out new roosts and possible nesting sites. They are stopping in the high trees on the south side of the Crankles and making a bit of a racket. I can see them from my house. There are dozens of them; the trees are black with birds. And then after about 30 minutes they fly on. I am mystified but also “nervous” because we have put an owl box in those trees and, I’m sure, no owl will choose to nest there if there are corvids roosting in the same trees. Similarly, we are planning to put a kestrel box nearby. The corvids are much the same size as kestrels and I have seen them “team handedly” mob a kestrel in No Mans Meadow a few weeks ago.The kestrel could not get away fast enough; it wasn’t attacked but it was clearly “escorted” away.

Others have mentioned a woodpecker making a monotonic symphony of tapping. We’ve heard and seen it – it is a great spotted woodpecker.  It taps in the high trees near the Police Station bridge over the Linnet. Last year I saw it chased off by corvids and I fear the same may have happened again. Magpies seem to be the bullies this time. However, they in turn were harried by other corvids.

A great spotted woodpecker is tapping away in the same spot as last year. It’s not possible to say whether it’s the same one as last year but this one seems determined to nest successfully. 

And we must keep an eye open for the kingfishers. Usually they are seen singly but recently a pair were seen. They seem to stick close to the Lark but there are occasional sightings from the Premier Inn car park bridge over the Linnet. 

A few weeks ago a Tawny Owl was heard near the Police Station bridge over the Linnet. It was heard calling during several evenings. It wasn’t seen but it has a very distinctive call. 

Another distinctive call was heard in the first week of February on the western side of Ram Meadow.  There were several chiffchaffs; again heard but not seen. They seem to like to hide in low lying undergrowth like brambles and ivy. More easily spotted, we have seen chaffinches and long tailed tits. They sit higher in bushes and small trees. When you stand still, wait quietly and watch carefully you will “suddenly” notice teams of long tailed tits moving quickly from tree to tree. While not highly coloured they are very distinctive. It seems impossible to watch them on the move without smiling!

On 18th February, while storm Eunice did her worst in Bury St Edmunds, I was keeping an eye from my garden on the Crankles and noticed a lamp on a garden table roll off onto the floor. Going to sweep it up I came on the saddest sight of my year so far. An adult long tailed tit was lying dead. It must have been foraging and got caught by a fierce gust and bounced against the fence. 

When I went back a couple of hours later the tit was gone. I doubt very much that it was taken by a predator such as a cat or a raptor and so I was left wondering whether it had been stunned rather than killed. I hope so but, of course, we will never know.

This is a strange time of year. The weather has been so variable. We have had more than our fair share of “ miserable stuff”, although I have to confess that those living to the west and north of us have had an even more difficult time, but those days have been interspersed by days when the word “delightful” would be very appropriate. A few days ago I even managed to enjoy lunch at a table in the garden. I used the word “summery” a couple of times. And then the next day the word “dire” sprang frequently to mind. 

One of the wonderful things at this time of year is the almost sudden appearance of “cheerful” plants. The snowdrops have been a delight. Followed up by crocus and daffodils. There are plenty on the banks of both the Linnet and the Lark. Each of our water meadows has had a show of snowdrops. Many, of course, were planted by volunteers a couple of years ago. And we have, in the last few days, violets, berberis, celandine and comfrey.

The growing and greening has begun. Leaves are beginning to open but it is the cherry and blackthorn trees that are in blossom. A blast of colour accompanied by their delicate, sweet smell. 

The other evening I noticed for the first time this year something quite different. It was the slightly pungent smell of wild garlic as I walked along one of the avenues in the Great Churchyard. There were no garlic flowers at the time but there are plenty now. In terms of numbers, they seem to be in third place to cow parsley and comfrey.

These two photos, taken by Christopher Cross, signal the best ”bird” news so far this year. A pair of kestrels appear to have set up home in one of our kestrel boxes in No Mans Meadow. We had feared that they had been mounted too late for this year’s breeding season. Let us hope we were insufficiently optimistic.

There is no doubt that this is a joyful time of year. Let’s hope that we have seen the last of the frosts!

Iain Carruthers-Jones

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