The Water Meadows Chronicles part 12 (July 2020)

Iain Carruthers-Jones is in reflective mood. 

We were given a nestbox as a present last year. How nice… and we showed gratitude but we were thinking about where we might put it. Eventually it ended up sitting on the top of our back fence which backs onto the Crankles and overlooks the Linnet. Because it has a semicircular base it rested almost sideways. And there it sat, pretty but neglected through the winter. A little art installation commented on by all but completely neglected. In our line of sight but not seen because it was so familiar. And then…

In the spring, after that ghastly month of rain and misery, we noticed that birds were inspecting it. Might it be used for nesting? Should we make it more secure? Well, we didn’t make it more secure but a decision was made for us when a couple of blue tits moved in. We worried about whether predators might find it easy to spoil things. There are a couple of squirrels that use the branches and the fence top as a way about. There were some larger birds about as well. When the bigger birds and squirrels showed interest we shooed them away. And left the blue tits to get on with it. I thought that their chances of success were pretty slim but as the time went by there was an increasingly intense amount of activity. The blue tit parents were backwards and forwards presumably with various nutritious titbits. We couldn’t believe how hard working those blue tit parents were. The temptation was to try to find out how many little ones there were. We resisted, fearing that the adult birds might abandon the nest. Hoping that no predators would come calling.

Yesterday (20th June) we noticed that larger birds were hanging around. Mainly blackbirds. They weren’t willing to fly away when we shouted at them. My wife, Sarah, went down the garden since there was a blackbird sitting on the top of the nest box. Just handy for the exit hole. This bird was unwilling to fly away until she was almost within “flacking” distance. Then it flew away.

A little later I was out in the garden. I was measuring the garden’s dimensions in preparation for drawing a plan for the makeover the garden so desperately needs. Six metres wide and 10 metres from the edge of the patio to the back fence. I was engrossed but an insistent bird call broke through and I looked around; one of the parent birds was calling in alarm from a branch above the nestbox. What was going on?

I saw movement inside the fence and at first I thought it was a rodent. Probably a field mouse. Quickly I realised that it was a small bird hopping around inside the fence which has a hollow wooden framework. It was a baby blue tit that was stuck. It must have left the box but fallen down the gap in the fence before it could flex its wings. What was I to do?

The bottom section of the fence on the outside path is covered with chicken wire to discourage rodents coming into the garden. I bent the wire back to make a ground level space for escape and stood well back. And waited. And waited. And then out hopped the newly fledged blue tit. Everything went silent. The parent was silent and I was transfixed. This little bird looked at me. Was it thinking whether I would attack it or was it saying “thank you”. It’s very easy to anthropomorphise in situations like that. Anyway we looked at each other for what seemed like an age and then it hopped up onto the lower rung of the fence on the other side of the pathway. It looked at me one last time …and was gone. An abrupt ending to an embryonic relationship.

Well, possibly not quite. Two days later our dog was worrying away at something on the lawn. I went across to her; she was barking to get my attention. And there was the broken body of a baby blue tit. I was bereft.

When walking No Man’s Meadow a couple of days ago we saw a mother partridge scurrying through the grass. She had four chicks in hot pursuit. It was comical but it doesn’t take long to realise that they had to keep moving so we stood aside and wished them luck. Similarly this morning (30/06/20) I was taking Luna out for her morning walk. I stopped to speak with some neighbours from across the street and moments later the lady jumped up and down and whispered “look at this”. A female Mallard was racing past my front door with five ducklings in tow. It was hard to credit their speed but it was a joy to see. Clearly something had unsettled her, however, and she was trying to get her brood to safety.

Yesterday, while walking in Ram Meadow, I saw two egrets flying along the Lark. This was the first time I have seen egrets flying together. Usually I have seen a single egret and later in the walk another single egret. It’s hard to tell whether this is the same egret seen for the second time or two egrets fishing alone. Additionally, on the same stretch of Lark, a kestrel appeared from the north end of the Meadow. Flying fast it homed in on a pigeon and then, to my surprise, swerved away at the very last minute. I wonder why.

All of this activity has had the most wonderful backdrop. The wild flowers are a sight to make you smile and the trees are in full leaf. We have the quintessential water meadow landscape. If you haven’t visited in a while because of the lockdown, come and see it. Together with the “sight for sore eyes” loveliness of the Abbey Gardens, you’ll have a smile on your lips as you enjoy your afternoon cup of tea.

For the BWMG volunteers these last few months have been a trying time. We have the enjoyment of being part of the team that contributes to the health and beauty of the Water Meadows and, as well, we enjoy the esprit of the social side of working together. We are hoping that we will be able to get the team together again soon.

Those of us that are involved in the biodiversity survey are beginning to mobilise. We were due to get started in the week that lockdown was imposed and we were going to start with surveying bird life. Now we are going to have to play catch up with birds but we will be turning our minds to “crawly things”, insects and butterflies, plants and trees very soon.

An excellent benefit from lockdown has been our collective introduction to the benefits of the internet both to do our food shopping and to learn about the natural world.  BWMG Secretary, Libby Ranzetta, has curated an excellent series of Friday evening talks. The subjects have ranged far and wide, and a series of speakers have shared their knowledge, experience and enthusiasm with us. I have certainly learnt a lot; I’m sure that other attendees feel the same. I have learnt so much and yet I realise that I have so much more to learn.

So, in conclusion, part of me feels that a big part of the year so far has been wasted by the virus. On the other hand, it has provided an opportunity to learn, through reflection, reading and the talks, and I have come to appreciate even more the wonderful world of the Meadows. I hope you have , too.

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