Sunday, 27 March 2016

The Chiffchaffs are here!

Yes, spring is here as I heard my first chiffchaff the other day, on a glorious sunny walk.

This contrasted starkly with the walk last Sunday in the gloom - not raining at least. We had walked along the Stratford Reserve to the Avon Valley Nature Reserve on the outskirts of Salisbury. This is an area of SSSI owned by the Council. It's quite different to the Stratford Reserve - a wider floodplain, with managed tussocky grassland (managed by labour-intensive cutting and removal of cuttings), a wetland area, and a boardwalk along the riverbank.

But this Easter weekend started very differently - lots of lovely warm sunshine as we walked from Salisbury to Coombe Bissett for our pub lunch. The route takes us via the Racecourse and Ox Drove, for great views and many skylarks above us.

After lunch, we managed to haul ourselves on a slightly-longer route back, along the River Ebble (a highly valuable chalk stream), taking in the primroses and celandines, old boundary trees and watermeadow structures in the river. The route than crossed Stratford Tony and joined a Roman Road across arable fields. Here we encountered ancient trees and a surprising number of birds, including corn bunting (nationally rare), more skylarks and chiffchaffs. The latter are usually a summer migrant, although I believe a few are now starting to overwinter here. In any case, it was the first one of the season, which really heralds spring to me. Bring on the swifts and cuckoos!

And finally, I was just telling one of the people on the walk about the wonder of oil beetles, when only a few minutes down the path we encountered one crossing  in front of us. They're pretty special in that they are nationally declining species, favouring unimproved grassland, which has been progressively lost throughout the decades. They also have a fascinating lifecycle, where the larvae have to attach themselves to the back of a solitary bee by climbing to the top of a flower stem. Arriving at the bee's burrow, the larvae then devour the bee's eggs and pollen stores, emerging as an adult usually in the spring (although some species emerge in the autumn). Amazing stuff, and an indicator of the health of an ecosystem - they have to have the right flowers for the bees to feed on, to enable the larvae to attach themselves and grow.

Saturday, 19 March 2016

Tranquility close to home

This week I managed to squeeze in a couple of visits to my favourite places - yes, of course Martin Down. But on Thursday, I also popped down to walk the Stratford Nature Reserve on my doorstep.

As you may recall, I'm helping to write the management plan, and was walking with another local who'd been coming to the reserve for 25 years! She remembered how some areas had several pairs of nesting lapwing - long gone - and how one part of the riverbank had a nesting kingfisher - until the chicks were boiled alive when someone built a fire on top of the bankside nest.

But apart from those sad stories, I enjoyed hearing about how the site had been managed in the past and more recently, and trying to spot any signs of positive indicator plant species. None were seen, but it's early in the season, although I'm told marsh marigold and ragged robin can both be seen. As we walked, we discussed how best to manage the site - we're trying to get the site secure for a grazier we might have lined up - including discussions about providing a water supply for the cattle, and how best to manage access by the public. I'm really looking forward to seeing things take shape.

It's such a peaceful spot - so surprising when you consider the proximity to the city and the busy Devizes Road at the top of the ridge. It's highly used and prized by the locals, so hopefully people can continue to enjoy this - and the regular wildlife they spot such as the barn owl and little owl that appear every day - whilst the site is returned to its flowery glory.

And then yesterday I popped out for a yomp up on Martin Down - of course, the glorious sunshine that accompanied us during our walk through the Stratford Reserve had turned to gloom - thankfully no rain though. You get the feeling that the site is on the cusp, ready to explode into colour. The birds are well into their breeding period now - with many singing skylarks overhead - as well as many ravens calling. The latter has been a success in the last few years. I remember coming to the Down in 2004, and getting very excited about seeing my first raven. Now they appear to be everywhere, a testament to reduced persecution and greater habitat availability perhaps. Still, we encountered very few people on our tour of the reserve, and in the misty gloom it was once again very tranquil and isolating from the busy world outside.

As Easter approaches, I hope to have more time to explore some of my favourite local haunts.

Saturday, 12 March 2016

Green surprises

It always amazes me how green even our most urban areas are. Last Sunday, we spent the day at my sister's in Eastleigh, which only ever makes the headlines when something like a by-election happens! It's situated just north of Southampton, and is a railway town that has expanded into a sprawl of suburbia.

Several years ago I worked with the Council to get most of their valuable greenspace into an agri-environment scheme. With local government cash-strapped, this income secures the environmental and social benefits of these tricky-to-manage areas. On our post-Mother's-Day-walk we went on a bit of a tour of some of the sites. Our first port of call was Fleming Park - not included within the agri-environment schemes, as it's mostly amenity grassland. Nonetheless, there are remnants of the historic parkland that it once formed part of (the Flemings are a local family that owned a large part of Eastleigh - unfortunately the land is now split up) including old limes and beeches. We rounded a corner and came across a gathering of several thrush species - blackbird, robin, song thrush and redwing, twittering away, like kids on a street corner. We took in Lakeside Country Park (which has a narrow gauge railway, including a steam engine!), with it's ex-quarry pits now lakes for wildfowl. Here we saw what we think was a female goldcrest - a tiny ping-pong ball of a bird hopping around the branches of a birch tree, extracting tiny invertebrates. It's Britain's smallest bird, so was a good spot!

We concluded with a quick potter around Avenue Park - this is a small area of Capability Brown-designed historic parkland, with magnificent old lime trees featuring massive balls of mistletoe. It's of great importance for its adder population, but of course it's still a bit too early for them to come out of hibernation. We contented ourselves with admiring the handiwork of the restoration of the old War Shrine. This was erected soon after the First World War in memory of the Fleming's two sons who had both been killed. It's architecture is the so-called 'arts and crafts' style - in reality, it looks a bit like a big bus shelter! When I got involved with the site, it was in a very bad state of repair, but we secured funding for it's restoration. It's still used for Remembrance Day services and highly valued by the community, so it was good to see it restored.

Over the next few weekends I'm out and about visiting friends and hopefully enjoying the spring weather, so posts might be a bit sporadic - the sun is shining, that thrush is singing (well, it has been since about January outside my bedroom window - handy on a weekday to know when to get up, but quite annoying at the weekend!) and the plum tree blooming, so I'm looking forward to spring finally springing!

Saturday, 5 March 2016

Winter, summer, winter, spring!

This is what my last couple of weeks have been like. You may recall I was just heading out to the Alps on a skiing holiday - as I left the UK, it was cold but when we arrived in Italy, we were surprised to find ourselves already at the resort. This surprise was because there was very little snow! In fact, temperatures soared that day, reaching 18 degrees - a temperature we had not packed for! Despite the retreating snow, it got colder during the week and we had a great time (even if we did ski in rain at one point, and across grass/mud on many occasions!). It made me wonder how the resorts will be impacted by climate change - whole local economies built on a weather pattern may fail. Disturbing stuff.

And so to this week - as we were leaving the resort it was snowing heavily and by all accounts has not stopped since. arriving in the UK, however, it felt very spring-like. And, on a short walk to the Stratford Reserve on Thursday, the bird song was thick in the air, mixing with the spectacle of lesser celandine and snowdrops amassing on the banks. A pair of swans were obviously building up the breeding season, with the cob noticing my presence, dashing across the river and hissing a warning. I've also noticed the plum tree in my garden is now starting to bloom too.

Looking forward to more flowers and insects out and about - the anticipation feels like it is building!