Monday, 20 November 2017

My article for Talking Newspapers for the Blind

Recently I was asked to write an essay for Talking Newspapers, an organisation that produces taped articles for the blind to listen to. The subject was to be a wintry visit to Maple Lodge Nature Reserve. With a little help from Keith Pursall, I finally submitted the below piece....
It went down well though as I have been asked to write another piece for Easter.
Hope you like it too....
A Winter’s Day At Maple Lodge Nature Reserve

Snow has fallen overnight, not a huge amount, but it’s enough to feel my boots sink down by a good icy inch. It’s bitterly cold at Maple Lodge Nature Reserve this morning and I am well wrapped up. So, first things first, I have taken advantage of the facilities and made myself a steaming cup of coffee before securing myself in the Clubhouse hide, probably one of my favourite hides in this green gem hidden away in Maple Cross.

Now, let’s quietly open the hide hatch. Was that a Great Spotted Woodpecker? I just saw a flash of black, white and red from one of the bird feeders over there. It will probably be back. These woodpeckers are predictable and very territorial. There are lots of Blue Tits and Great Tits on the other feeders, and the ground is occupied by Chaffinches and the occasional Dunnock and Robin, all busily clearing up any spilt seed.
That loud high-pitched call means a pair of Ring-necked Parakeets have arrived, a bird not to everyone’s taste but a welcome splash of colour in the gloom of the snow laden clouds overhead. Their brilliant green and turquoise plumage and bright red beaks certainly make them stand out. There was a bit of a noisy exchange with a challenging Magpie but the Parakeets have now claimed one of the feeders for their own. The Magpie also looks stunning in the winter light, with its apparent black markings showing almost bluey-green as he hops about in the frosted grass looking for anything of nutritional value.
From one of the scrubby bushes a Robin has come out to sing on a favoured perch. A lovely song, not only calling for a mate, but also declaring this area as his own. On the lake I can see several pairs of Mallards dabbling around, some beautiful Gadwall with their intricate grey and black markings, and several colourful Shovelers are going around in circles stirring up lots of tasty morsels that they are sifting through with their enormous bills. Right at the back of the lake, using my binoculars, I can count at least ten Tufted Ducks, and there is an opportunist Grey Heron perched precariously on the now empty tern raft. Black-headed Gulls are flying overhead and squawking for no apparent reason than just to have their voices heard. Only part of the lake is iced over, and a Moorhen is trying to navigate a path across it to the open water without slipping and sliding. Luckily, they have large feet with toes that can really spread out wide and it has just about made the journey without incident. A hapless Mallard hasn’t had the same luck and as it landed on the ice after flying in, it has slid into an almost sitting position before clumsily trying to stand up on the unforgiving icy surface.
I’ll close the hide window quietly so as not to disturb any of the wildlife. I’ll now leave the Clubhouse and make my way up the crunchy frosty path towards the Mike Foulkes Double Decker Hide.
What’s that rustling in the leaves to the side of the path? I’ll wait for a few moments to see if anything emerges. Another short burst of rustling and there’s a stunning male Blackbird with a newly found earthworm in its beak. He’s spotted me and taken off with his breakfast.
On one of the trees over there, there are signs that a Muntjac deer has been present. The fresh look frayed bark also indicates this was within the last couple of days. Muntjac often fray the bark of trees as part of their territory marking but fraying also occurs to scrub off the old velvet on their small antlers and allow the new velvet to grow through. You can normally tell if a Muntjac has caused this damage as there will be droppings and track marks nearby, and the fraying will be about a metre off the ground. Sure enough there are the tell-tale shiny black cylinder-shaped droppings on the frosted path.
A few metres further on and there in front of me is a Rabbit quite oblivious to my presence. He is checking out some grass that is peeking through the thin layer of snow. He has seen me now and is bouncing off into the undergrowth. But something has caught my eye to the right.  I’ll look through my binoculars. I can see a very small bird moving from trunk to trunk. It’s a Treecreeper! In fact, it’s not one but two investigating the nooks and crannies in the rough bark. As each trunk has been inspected they are flying to the next one, landing low down and making their way up and around the tree. They are so wonderful to watch but so annoyingly difficult to photograph. These small birds not only move fast but with their mixed brown coloured plumage they can become almost invisible against the bark of the tree.
I’ve now reached the newly refurbished double-decker hide and I think I’ll sit for a short time in the bottom tier. Right in front of me there are five stunning male Teal. With their chestnut heads and bright green eye patches, they must be the most handsome of all the dabbling ducks. In winter they can be seen in great numbers in reserves such as Maple Lodge with the majority being visitors from the Baltic and Siberia. The females are drabber in colour but retain that ‘cute’ look that only the Teal have. In the reeds I can see movement of another small bird, but it isn’t coming to the front of the reed bed. I’ll have to go up to the top deck to take a better look.
From this higher floor I can see now that it’s a male Reed Bunting, feeding on the brown sausage shaped seed head of the common Reed Mace. An apt plant for an apt bird. And there’s another bird call. It’s a Cetti’s Warbler! This is always a very elusive bird. I don’t suppose I shall actually see it as their calls can carry a long way on a winter’s day. However, from my elevated position of the Mike Foulkes Hide I can see and hear a Common Buzzard, soaring the thermals. Within seconds it has attracted a noisy group of Jackdaws and several of them are flying up to mob the buzzard. Jackdaws are probably my favourite member of the crow family with their grey heads and piercing white irises. They are highly intelligent and sociable birds, often roosting and feeding together in large groups. To see hundreds of these birds coming in to roost at Maple Lodge is a common and delightful sight. Its cousin, the Jay, is sitting in an old tree over to the left, watching the Common Buzzard too. But the buzzard is moving away over the reserve now and the air appears calm again.
The Rotunda Hide is next on my list to visit. But before I get there I am going to stop and watch this roving group of small birds moving through the almost leafless trees. The group includes Great Tits, Blue Tits, Long-tailed Tits and several Goldcrests. Why they flock and fly together at this time of year isn’t really known, but when searching for food I guess more eyes are better than one and being part of a larger group provides an extra sense of security against predators.
I’ve reached the hide now and wow! One of these predators, a large stocky female Sparrowhawk, has caught a feral pigeon in front of the hide on the large expanse of ground that is covered in beautiful Marsh Orchids in the summer. She has mantled her prey and begun the process of plucking the pigeon’s feathers. Many of the small birds including Robins and Wrens are alarm calling from the surrounding scrub. Oh, that’s a shame - she was obviously feeling exposed because the Sparrowhawk has just flown off leaving her prey behind. I’m confident she will return so will wait patiently in the hide. However, all that commotion has now attracted the attention of a Fox. He’s appeared from round the back of the scrub and is sniffing the air and ground. He’s found the pigeon in no time at all. With his russet red winter coat, he looks very bright against the wintery background but he has now disappeared with his prize find. One-nil to the Fox. I think that the area in front of the hide is now likely to be very quiet because two recent predators having been on the scene, so I’ll move around to Comma Corner. The sun is now trying to break through the grey white clouds and the small covering of snow on the ground is beginning to thaw.
Comma Corner is one of my favourite places in spring and summer with the number of butterflies and other insects that are attracted to the blackberry bushes. At this time of year, it’s the tall whispery alder trees that attract the most wildlife. I can count around 30 Siskins feeding on the alder seeds, some very acrobatically and almost upside down. In amongst them is the odd colourful Goldfinch with their almost clown-like facial masks. The air is alive with the gentle sound of ‘twitters’ and ‘tweets’ as the birds feed comfortably together. To my right there is the unmistakeable ‘yaffle’ call of a Green Woodpecker and I’ve just caught sight of it flying overhead flashing the yellow under its bright green wings.
I’m now well on my way to the comfortable Teal Hide. There’s another Rabbit along the pathway and I am being scolded by a Wren for accidentally flushing it from the path where it has been rooting around in the grit. There are several handily placed perches in front of the Teal Hide. These perches are perfect to watch and observe the resident Kingfishers. And I haven’t had to wait for long. There’s a long sharp call and that distinctive bright flash of blue. This is a female with her lipstick on. I am not joking. This is the best way to tell if a Kingfisher is male or female. Males have all black beaks whereas the female has orangey red on the lower part of her beak, just as if she was wearing lipstick. Kingfishers nest deep in river banks so don’t have to rely on their plumage to be camouflaged and this female is positively glowing in the winter’s sun. With her speckled bluey green head, orange eye patch and white throat and ear patches, she gives out an almost regal aura. Movement in the water has caught her eye and she has swiftly dived down and emerged a second later with a small silvery stickleback. Returning to her perch she is battering the poor fish head first against the branch before turning it, so she can swallow it without risking her delicate throat against its spiny fins. Meal eaten, she’s flown off calling.
The water levels in front of this hide sometimes drop low enough to expose several small shingly islands. On one of these a Green Sandpiper and a Redshank are stalking along the waters’ edge and on another there is a Little Egret with its pure snowy white plumage and comical yellow feet at the end of its black legs. It is completely still, intently searching the shallow cold water. Another expert fisherman just like the Kingfisher, it hasn’t taken long for the Egret to spy a fish and pounce forward with its sharp dagger-like beak. I can hear a loud ‘trilling’ and in to view comes a Little Grebe. At this time of year, they are quite a dull brown colour, but they are still a delight to watch as they continuously dive underwater in their own fashion of fishing. Just visible on the outer bank opposite the hide is a Common Snipe. Its incredible stripy brown and yellow body makes it very hard to spot amongst the dead foliage and I would have missed it except a passing Mallard happened to spook it. This delightful stocky wader has a very long bill made perfectly for going deep in to the mud searching for those hidden water insects.
Winter days have short daylight hours and I still have so much of the reserve to explore.
Leaving the temptation to wait for another Kingfisher to appear I have made my way round to the Long Hedge Hide, where I’m lucky enough to spot the familiar blue flash across the water as I open the hide window. With such an abundance of small fish in all the lakes across the reserve, it wouldn’t be surprising if there were two pairs of Kingfishers resident. The reserve is certainly big enough. The water in front of the Long Hedge Hide is alive with squabbling Black-headed Gulls and by carefully scanning my way through the mass I am able to pick out three Common Gulls with their much gentler kinder faces, and one large stern-looking Black-backed Gull. There is a Grey Heron preening in one of the overhanging willows. The eerie call of a Red Kite coming over has made the heron look up. The loud ‘mew’ of the kite seems to carry in the chilly air as it uses its forked tail almost like a rudder to float across the grey sky. Another one has now appeared from the same direction. The two Red Kites have put up the gulls and as they settle back on the mostly unfrozen lake, the squabbles again break out amongst them. An elegant Great Crested Grebe is coming nearer to the hide. These stunning birds were once hunted to almost extinction for their head feathers, which were used to decorate well to do ladies hats in the 19th century. Thankfully that trend died out and these beautiful birds are quite common now. I always look forward to seeing their young in the spring with their black and white stripy humbug appearance. From the direction of the Shell Hide I can hear another Cetti’s Warbler but it again remains invisible deep down in the reed beds. Jays and Magpies keep flying over the lake, sometimes carrying acorns after successfully finding them buried by an unsuspecting Grey Squirrel. Right next to the hide’s furthest window on the left I can see a tiny Goldcrest foraging amongst the evergreen holly leaves, occasionally calling in the small tinny way that some humans cannot hear. A Mistle Thrush is singing from another tall holly bush with another Wren ‘tutting’ at it from below.
It’s now time to leave the hide and, walking back to the sluice gate to take the grass path to the Lynsters Hide, I have paused by the Barn Owl Meadow to watch a gaggle of Canada Geese fly noisily over, shortly followed by a great V formation of around 20 Greylag Geese, all heading for the farm fields. In the adjacent hedgerow I can spot six Redwings feeding on berries and the very welcome sight of a cross looking solo Fieldfare feeding on the fallen crab apples. They always have that very distinct look on their face, almost as if they are permanently frowning.
Leaving the birds to forage in peace I’m going to check the muddy area around the sluice for any Badger or Muntjac tracks before slowly making my way up the grass path. Each turn of the path could have a feeding bird or mammal on it, so by going slowly and quietly you might just see it before they are alerted to your presence and fly or run off. Three more Rabbits, several Blackbirds and a welcome Song Thrush later, I have reached the little bridge over to the hide.
You can hear the geese before you even enter Lynsters Hide, a small but cosy and comfortable hide with very good views over the adjoining farm land. Hundreds of Canada, Greylag and Egyptian Geese are feeding across the field and greeting newly arriving groups with lots of head posturing and calling. On the farmers lake there are Coots and Tufted Ducks galore with more geese washing and preening noisily. More Redwings and Fieldfares are on the ground at the furthest end of the main field and on one of the fence posts sits an impressive looking Common Buzzard that is probably watching a couple of either very brave or very silly Rabbits that are mingling amongst the feeding geese. A pair of Mute Swans are sitting in front of the hide nibbling at the frosty grass around them. On the wire fence in front of the hide there was a Grey Wagtail. It perched very briefly before flying to the edge and it is now strutting up and down the exposed mud all the while flicking its long tail up and down. A decent sized group of about 40 male and female Wigeons are viewable at the back of the field whilst Teals, Gadwalls and Mallards are feeding closer to the hide windows. The sun has now really broken through the snowy clouds and little wisps of cool air can be seen drifting up from the defrosting ground.
Time to make my way back to the Clubhouse for another warming mug of coffee. I think I’ll take the Woodland Walk. There the sounds of the small roving flocks of mixed birds are following me around as my boots scuffle through the frozen leaves. All the thin layer of snow has gone now with just a few frosty ice patches on the evergreen foliage. Another Rabbit scuttles across the path in front of me and Grey Squirrels are busy digging in to the leaf fall maybe searching for one of the acorns that the Jays and Magpies were flying around with earlier in my day. There are more tinny calls from Goldcrests and I’ve paused for a while hoping to see a stunning Firecrest amongst them, but to no avail. Come spring, the Woodland Walk will be alive with the buzz of insects and the calls of baby birds from the many nest boxes dotted around.
Back at the Clubhouse, I’ve made my drink and retreated to the Clubhouse Hide for the last hour. As predicted, the Great Spotted Woodpecker is back on one of the feeders and I can watch and photograph him for quite a while now. Unfortunately, the Magpie has reappeared and bullied the Woodpecker away. I shall have to drag myself away as the light has started to fade and another Kingfisher is a silhouette on the water height marker. A perfect end to a winter’s day visit to Maple Lodge Nature Reserve.




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