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Village Nature Diary with Mary Green

A wildlife corridor

Posted on January 19 2009 at 4:30:34 0 comments

Ducks on the ice

Mary Green marvels at the huge variety of flora and fauna along the canal running through this area.

I am writing this in the very cold weather of early January. We have had the coldest early winter period for decades, and some of the coldest temperatures for years in January. The canal is well-frozen and the fields are crunchy with light snow.

Nevertheless, I saw a celandine flower out on the canal towpath in the new year: I think it had bloomed during the mild spell immediately before Christmas and was suffering a bit in the subsequent frost.

Christmas was notable for the lack of holly berries. It wasn’t that they didn’t form – they were plentiful round here in October – but the birds had stripped everything edible by Christmas, presumably because of the cold weather.

One of my neighbours introduced me to the sound of the great tit, which starts its mating call around the December solstice, and I heard it just before Christmas. It is a repeated two-note call which sounds “like a squeaky wheelbarrow”. I have heard this applied to the sound of several birds, and often wonder how many people these days know what a squeaky wheelbarrow sounds like!

This year I want to celebrate some of the places where we can see wildlife locally. My own favourite is the canal, an excellent wildlife corridor. It has a good path which is only accessible by walkers and cyclists, so we can see things, and usually has an opposite bank which is not accessible, so that wildlife can be safe.

It is partly managed, sometimes though not always in the interests of wildlife. The water means that plants flourish throughout dry periods in summer, when we get them.

At this time of year, the behaviour of water birds is fascinating. Mallard ducks are the most common bird, and an excellent way to introduce children to wildlife. They are very tame and therefore easily watchable.

At this time they gather on the frozen canal around a thawed patch so they can take turns to dip in the water to feed (as shown in the photograph by Village reader Kelvin Rose of Alvechurch).

In the autumn and winter they pair up, and sometimes you see a pair mating at this time. It is too early for true mating, so I guess they do it to strengthen their pair bond.

The drakes are in their bright winter-spring colours now, which they lose during the summer and go brown. You can still spot the males by their yellow beaks during this dull period, and the females by their prettier brown-and-white feathers.

The ducklings come in spring and early summer and are a delight to watch. Drakes fight over ducks at mating times, sometimes subjecting a duck to multiple mating. She always rises out of the water afterwards shaking her wings, looking triumphant, or perhaps saying good-riddance!

The other common bird, the Canada goose, disappears somewhere during the very cold weather, presumably to a patch of open water where there is less ice. During the late autumn, I saw a barnacle goose on the canal here for a few days. This is very uncommon as they normally live in north west Scotland.

They have very beautifully patterned black-and-white feathers and are quite unmistakeable. A few weeks later I saw a greylag goose, again uncommon round here, with distinctive orange bill and legs. All the year round, herons live along the canal and often sit by the towpath until you get very near them.

The swans we see here are mute swans, though they are far from silent and make a rather grunty noise belying their elegant movements. They mate for life, as we all know, though apparently aren’t always faithful! I have watched cygnets grow up and mature here on the canal, and new pairs getting to know each other.

There are seagulls on the canal too. They are mostly black-headed gulls. In winter, the black plumage on the head disappears apart from a small black spot. Now the black head feathers are coming back, so spring’s on the way!

Other birds love the canal too. In one place I walk, there are gardens on one side and an uncultivated field on the other. Birds fly all the time across the canal between the two – finches of all kinds, tits, blackbirds, pigeons, even kingfishers – taking berries and bird-seed from the gardens and nesting on the quiet side. In the towpath hedges, wrens and robins are common.

The canal can be a wonderful source of wild flowers and other plants. In some places the borders of the towpath had proper hedge-laying done about 20 years ago, and you can still see the shape behind the current roughly-slashed hedges. Unfortunately the current regime doesn’t allow such good flowering of the blackthorn and hawthorn hedges as the older methods.

The cutting of the path-side vegetation, which is necessary for many plants to establish themselves, is not always done at the right time, so some flowering plants are not as common as they might be. If they leave areas uncut from March to August (which they rarely do), then plants, insects and animals thrive really well.

British Waterways has a dedicated wildlife officer, Paul Wilkinson, who covers the Birmingham and Worcester Canal. He tries his best to make sure the maintenance regime of the canal is wildlife-friendly, but has a huge area to cover and few resources.

He has been very helpful in my efforts to protect the bee orchids that grow by the canal. However, canal maintenance is first and foremost for boaters, who often ask for more, not less, cutting of vegetation. The canal exemplifies the conflicting priorities that make wildlife conservation complicated. 

In later winter and early spring, the canal is a good place to see the first plants flowering. Dog’s mercury is very early, with attractive leaves and rather inconspicuous green flowers. In February you will also see celandines, coltsfoot and white dead nettles.

Following on in spring come the black sedge flowers – cool enough for a minimalist décor – then garlic mustard, then the banks become frothy with cow-parsley, interspersed with the blue of forget-me-nots.
June brings the yellow iris and wild roses, and July the heady meadow-sweet, willow herb and purple loosestrife, with yellow water lilies in the canal. Even late in August there are new flowers, bur marigold and orange balsam, though these are vulnerable to too-early cutting of the banks.

Meanwhile, the blossom on the hedges moves from cherry plum to blackthorn, then apple, cherry and hawthorn, followed by elder. Fruit follows these, making the canal a perfect place to pick for jam in autumn. The banks are often lined by fishermen, and they do catch things, evidence of another kind of wildlife.

I have seen huge carp in the canal as well as the more common roach. Insects are everywhere, from butterflies on the towpath to dragonflies over the water – and the less welcome midges and even mosquitoes in warm summers. Swallows dip over the canal in spring and summer because of the abundant insect life.

There are mammals too, though you don’t always spot them. Recently I saw a water vole swim across and disappear down a hole near where I live. Voles look at first glance a bit like rats, but their ears and tails are different. On the towpaths you often see rabbits and field mice. There used to be a mink along my stretch of canal, but I’ve never seen evidence of otters.

On the day I finished writing this, the cold had gone and I walked along the ice-free canal with spring in my step. Just as I thought of the kingfisher, walking past where I often see him, there he was – flashing along the opposite bank and stopping three times on bushes so I could admire him. It seemed a good omen for 2009.

The poem this month is from one of my colleagues in the Withybed Green poets group, who has grandchildren…

Winter Walk by Sue Phillips

Wrapped up warm against the cold
eyes hidden by fleecy red hat
fingers lost in woolly mitts
toes deep in their furry burrow

Snug she goes, to crack glass puddles
send weekend crusts curling across the ice
and laugh and laugh
as orange feet designed for paddling
come skidding and sliding
to greet her at the bank

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