There are 11 images in this slide show.
It’s not only landscape colours that change from drab to bright with the start of a new mating or growing season; animals also exhibit a new vibrancy that shows in behavioural changes and in the colours of plumage. The colour of a breeding heron’s beak, for instance, will change from yellow to orange, and its legs to pink; the shag’s plumage will change to a dark green; a drake mallard’s head plumage will have a purple hue during courting and mating, and then it changes to black after the female has laid her eggs. These exciting facts are worth knowing if you have more than a passing interest in nature. These subtle behavioural and colour changes pass on important information using a non-verbal language that we, and animals are capable of understanding – we have to spend time learning the language, though. It does help, when trying to see and understand these changes in nature, if you spend as much time as possible studying nature, preferably outside in the countryside – not everyone’s cup of tea, and that’s a fact.
People tell me that mallards are as common as muck; pigeons and squirrels are vermin; herons, and cormorants steal our fish. I don’t care! I’m interested in all animals, including the pests, the vermin, and the chicken and the fish stealers. I don’t see that one animal has any merit over another, unless we are eating them. I do see the necessity of managing the animals and their environment, and even the need to cull, to ensure their survival, but whatever we do now or in the future, Mother Nature will win in the end. However important and superior we human beings think we are, Mother Nature will win in the end, unless we find a means of vaporising ourselves and our planet.
I will put the landscapes in a separate post, perhaps later today.
25th February 2012: I was out walking through Hoo Wood before the Fox Hollow cockerel had crowed this morning. The sun had yet to rise, and my finger tips were feeling the nip of the cold air. By the time I had reached Dark Wood, the morning chorus filled the air with chirps, warbles, squarks, coos, and the hammering of at least four woodpeckers. I stood looking down into Fox Hollow as the cockerel began his normal morning ritual of announcing the arrival of a new dawn. I turned to see the golden light of the early sun light up the trees along the Hoo Wood ridge, a good half an hour before its warming rays reached the marsh. I watched as the orange glow crept slowly down the white concrete walls of the sugar silos. Soon, the air above the marsh warmed enough to cause a thin layer of mist to form above the North Pond and the River Stour.
The British Sugar factory site is to be redeveloped; in its place will be a combined industrial and residential estate. I can’t remember if I have mentioned it before, but the north end of the marsh is spanned by a large brick built viaduct, the Falling Sands Viaduct, carrying the Severn Valley Steam Railway. To the right of the northern end of the marsh is the Hoo Brook Viaduct carrying the main Oxford to Birmingham railway. The brick constructed Hoo Brook Viaduct replaced an earlier wooden structure that was built between 1851 and 1852.
I noticed a week ago that the marsh ground cover had a green tinge to it. This week the ground cover is very definitely green. New grass shoots are very obvious. Hundreds of comfrey plants have pushed their way through carpets of last year’s flattened, dead and bleached Himalayan balsam stalks. Dead-head nettles are at least 50mm high, and cow parsley fronds are very visible and probably the most vigorously growing plant on the marsh at the moment.
I’ve mentioned in earlier posts that during the winter, I have had to content myself with cattle, buzzards, cormorants and herons for company as I wandered through the marsh. Today, there was plenty of visible wildlife. Birds were the most numerous of the more readily seen animals, particularly blue tits that were busily chasing one another around tree trunks. Every clump of brambles seemed to have an animal or two making rustling noises within it.
A great many trees were felled and pruned this week. The standing water levels have fallen; whether this is due to lack of rain, rising sap, or to the low levels of Hoo Brook and the River Stour, I am not sure.
There was plenty of ground disturbance caused by animal scratching about for something to eat. An animal had even dug a sizable hole whilst I was down at the south end of the marsh this morning – a fox, I expect.
Dense clouds of hungry gnats floated annoyingly on a light breeze, making progress uncomfortable. From now on I will be carrying insect repellent.
In the copse where Poncey lives, I came across a squirrel building a nest. It was collecting branches with dead leaves attached and weaving them into a structure in between three splayed branches, at the top of a young oak tree, and it wasn’t hanging about either – it paid scant attention to me or my camera. The squirrel ran up and down various trees, along the ground in search of materials, and even made trips down to the river.
22st February 2012: On average, I see three cormorants at any one time on the marsh, and these are nearly always perched on the overhead power lines. The cormorant is a winter visitor. When the weather warms they fly off to the coast, leaving the remaining fish for the fishermen and herons to catch; or at least this is an opinion I have heard voiced on more than one occasion.
There are supposed to be around 7500 breeding cormorant pairs in the UK, of which 1500 of these nest inland. They eat approximately half a kilo of fish per day, usually 5mm to 150mm in length. It is said that they will work together to increase their fishing efficiency.
Cormorants will eat just enough for their needs, or the needs of their chicks. On the whole, they are lazy birds and spend most of their time doing nothing in particular – sitting on overhead power lines is the favourite leisure-time activity. Being a lazy bird, the cormorant prefers to be where there is plenty of fish, and it isn’t necessarily true that a decline in fish stocks is down to cormorant. However, cormorants can cause serious economic damage to fisheries, but this is more to do with a large amount of fish being available in one place, which in turn attracts more cormorants looking for an easy meal. On the marsh, it is far more likely that you will see cormorants sitting on power cables, or flying in or out of the reserve, than you will see actually fishing.
Cormorants are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act of 1981. Anyone found guilty of an offence against cormorants, or any protected wild bird, can be fined up to £5000, given six months imprisonment, or both.
21st February 2012: It’s not just foxes, badgers, muntjac deer, mink, otters and goodness knows what else, that we have living on Wilden Marsh; we also have a long-established heronry. Heronry is the name given to the place where a colony of herons live and breed; our’s happens to be in the middle of deep and smelly bog.
UK herons are a protected species under the Wildlife and Countryside Act of 1981. Government licences to kill small numbers of herons can be issued in very limited circumstances: normally to owners of commercial fisheries where non-lethal methods have been shown to be ineffective.
It’s grey herons (Ardea cinerea) that live on Wilden Marsh, and these are the largest herons in Europe. They weight between 1 and 2 kilograms and stand up to a meter in height. The presence of a heronry is indicative of reasonable fresh water quality. Egg laying at the marsh heronry will begin towards the end of March.
Grey herons are top of the food chain predators; they feed mainly on fish, but will eat frogs, ells, voles, and ducklings as the opportunity presents itself. Their nearest competitor is the cormorant: a spring and summer marsh visitor. It won’t be long before I am photographing herons wading in North Pond, dining on frog, newt and eel.
It has been estimated that there are somewhere in the region of 15,000 heron pairs nesting within the UK. Their breeding season is February to June; 3 to 5 eggs are laid; incubation is within 25 to 28 days, and the young fledge at 50 to 55 days. The chicks are usually very noisy and emit really loud clacking sounds when a parent arrives at the nest with food. The parents feed the chicks regurgitated fish.
There is usually a sentry, or two, keeping watch over the heronry when the parents are away catching fish for the chicks. The sentries will sit patiently in tall trees quite some distance from the heronry. If they detect a movement, they will swoop down to investigate. The chicks stop clacking and sink to the bottom of their nests when they hear the scout’s warning call.
Young herons teach themselves to catch fish, and often find fish in garden ponds tempting.