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BylineMaryGreen

Village Nature Diary with Mary Green

Nature awakes

Posted on May 13 2010 at 3:02:52 0 comments

Moorhen's nest by the canal, Withybed Green


Mary Green watches the wildlife in and around Alvechurch.

Thank you to the reader who said she enjoyed suggestions of where to walk. This month I have decided to walk closer to home. I have spent a wonderful April watching spring finally come, so this month I will write about that, too.

It is May as I write, and has of course gone cold again. However, I have seen may blossom and the first ducklings, and visited Eades meadows to see the green-winged orchids. I’ve walked twice all round Peck Wood in the open week and marvelled at the bluebells again, so that’s all right!

April started cold and showery, and ended the same way, but in between we had some glorious spring weather. I made the most of it by walking from my base in Withybed Green.

On Easter Sunday I led the Village Society walk on a favourite local short route, looking at wildlife and especially at edible plants. We walked past the Crown in Withybed, up the first right turn, Birches Lane. This starts as a little road and then becomes a bridleway leading up to Cooper’s Hill. Here we found all the usual edible leaves – garlic, garlic mustard, dandelion, ground elder, bittercress, goosegrass, nettles, golden saxifrage, and cow parsley (mostly garden weeds, so you can eat them as “gardener’s revenge”).

The hawthorn bushes, which usually come into leaf in late February, had just come out, so we were able to taste these leaves, which used to be called “bread and cheese” as they were eaten so often in these lean times of year. When we reached the bridleway the wood anemones had suddenly come out, at the start of a wonderful year for them. The cherry plum was blossoming at last.

We crossed Cooper’s Hill and the motorway bridge, then turned right down Aqueduct Lane. Here we saw coltsfoot flowering, the little yellow dandelion-like flowers that come up before their leaves; an old herbal cure for coughs. At The Paddocks we turned left and followed the footpath through a line of trees, then across fields to reach the canal bridge on Bittell Road.

We walked up the canal past the reservoir on the left to the Bittell moorings. On this stretch were beautiful white violets all over the bank. I showed the group where the bee orchids flowered in June (I hope they are back again this year.) Suddenly, the swallows appeared, the first I had seen this year, swooping and diving overhead – one of the birds most of us recognise, spring and summer visitors from Africa.

We turned round and walked back to Withybed along the canal. The usual birds were singing – chaffinches, beautiful blackbirds, great tits – then I heard the first chiffchaff of the year. Once you recognise this little bird’s song (I hardly ever see it) you will feel it really speaks of spring to you. It is a kind of bouncy song, going staccato from note to note without much tune. The chiffchaff migrates to us from warmer climes about the same time as swallows.

We also saw the first tiny buds on the blackthorn bushes, like breadcrumbs, at a time when the flowers would usually have been out for some time.

Walking along this stretch of canal, you will notice that the numbering of the bridges is out of sequence. That’s because there used to be another bridge, not far from Callow Hill. It went from a farm (the house is still there in the middle of the Blythesway estate) across to its fields. I have a photo of it from 1950, before the estate existed.

You will also see the “new” bridge across the “dead arm” of the canal, dating from the construction of the M42. This pretty little wooden bridge is rotting and is about to be replaced: they have already cleared a patch of trees and bushes there.

You can walk along the dead arm, and several ways off it on to the roads of the adjoining housing give you a footpath behind Crown Meadow down to the Birmingham Road – an excellent walk to the school or to Old Rectory Lane opposite. There are sometimes kingfishers along the canal here, and nearly always moorhens, mallards and mute swans. Recently I have seen the heron nearly every time I walk here.

In this amazing April, by the next weekend I had seen several new landmarks of spring along the canal. Within a few days, the chiffchaffs were calling away all the time, greenfinches were wheezing, and I saw two new butterflies. The first was a peacock, very recognisable, and the second a brimstone, a lovely clear yellow.

Both of these hibernate in their adult form and re-appear when it gets warmer. A couple of weeks later I saw an orange tip. This is a true spring butterfly, overwintering as a pupa and hatching in spring. It feeds mostly on lady’s smock. This lovely pale pink flower, also known as cuckoo flower, started flowering about that time too. It is very common along the canal towpath and in wet fields, including The Meadows (the park in Alvechurch), and by the end of April was everywhere. Later in April I saw small tortoiseshell and comma butterflies too.

Right near Withybed Green a friend pointed out a moorhen’s nest to me. It was by the towpath, foolishly as the hen swam away in fear every time anyone walked along. It had four eggs in it. Two days later it only had two, and then none. The heron took off almost under my feet as I was looking at it, and the two are probably connected!

Around this time I was doing another walk up past Bittell (I will describe the walk another time) and I saw a swan on its nest. This too had eggs in, but the swan was staying put, so I guess it has more chance. 

The canal walk south down to the wharf at Tardebigge is lovely in April and May, and I went in the last week of April. On the way I saw flowers of ground ivy and wild strawberry, and near Alvechurch a patch of horsetail. This strange ancient plant looks like brown asparagus.
You pass an interesting spot at Scarfield Dingle where there is a little tunnel under the canal with a footpath.

There is a very old oak (you can tell by the girth) which came into leaf in late April, and some small non-flowering elm trees in leaf (suckers from a big one which died recently). Through the tunnel, in the dingle, there were flowers of golden saxifrage, violets, primroses and lots of wood anemones. You can walk up the field here, as described later, or go the other way across the field to Alvechurch station. I went straight on.

When you reach the Shortwood tunnel the towpath stops and you go up and over through some of the loveliest woods around. The path zigzags but is clearly marked. The woods have a lot of beech trees, and in April they were beautiful, like pale green silk.

One or two bluebells were out, but it took until May before the real blue sheen came. You come out of the woods into an arable field with a clear path into another patch of trees, taking you back on to the towpath. This field has interesting cornfield weeds later in the summer.
The last stretch of the canal starts with wooded banks, carpeted with celandines, bluebells, and a wonderful tiny flower called moschatel. This is also known as town hall clock, because it has five flowers, pointing north, south, east and west like clockfaces, and upwards.

It usually flowers at Easter (but is late this year, of course) and is a symbol of Christian watchfulness. It also grows on the North Worcestershire path along the north side of Upper Bittell reservoir (which will feature in a later edition). Walking in the fields just a few hundred yards from my home, I suddenly found another big patch of it in a little spinney (not on a footpath, so I can’t tell you where!). I’ve lived here 25 years, and only just found it.

After the wooded stretch, there is some classic canalside scenery: quiet farmland, trees, irises (not out yet) and sedge. The common sedge came into flower in April. At first the flowering heads are black, and it looks like the kind of dramatic plant people might have in a minimalist garden. Then the heads get covered with yellow pollen and it looks quite bright.

At Tardebigge you can turn around and walk back (after an ice cream or cuppa at the wharf if you like). If you like a circular walk, you can make your way back by road to Cattespool farm on Stoney Lane. From here you can go by field paths to Wheeley Road, turn right and right again onto Scarfield Hill. This road leads you straight down to the canal by Alvechurch marina.

Alternatively you can turn left off it into Foxhill Lane, then take the field path from Foxhill to the right, down across the fields to Withybed Green. Foxhill Lane is a lovely little road which had bluebells and stitchwort in April, followed later by foxgloves.

There is another good route from Cattespool continuing down Stoney Lane, passing the end of Cobley Hill, until you see a stile in the left hand hedge with a footpath sign. This takes you down the fields to the canal at the foot of Scarfield Dingle. Keep towards the right of the first field and you will see the path cross a stile to the right. You then follow down near the left side of fields to the canal.

These fields are a lovely relic of old pasture, sometimes grazed by sheep or cattle. They are clearly ridged towards the bottom, making me think they were anciently cultivated. They were full of cowslips and lady’s smock, with patches of wood anemone, when I walked down them in April, with bluebells coming soon.

By the last week of the month the field, like all the footpaths round here, was full of blackthorn flowers. These were beautifully thick this year, first appearing on 10 April, instead of the usual mid-March. They show an interesting variety of different strains, some tiny and star-like coming before the leaves, some larger and more damson-blossom-like and accompanied by leaves.

St George’s Day, April 23, is usually a time for dandelion, bluebell, cowparsley and forget-me-not flowers, and oak leaves. This year the dandelions were there, and the forget-me-nots, and a few bluebells. Some oaks were just in leaf, including the one on Alvechurch village green, but many weren’t.

The cowparsley didn’t come out much before the end of the month, and it wasn’t until May that it was thick along the hedges and canal. In wet places along the Arrow was butterbur, quite a big pinkish flower. The first buttercups came. These were goldilocks buttercups, delicate and nearly always missing some of their petals.

I walked up The Birches bridleway again at the end of the month, and thought what a beautiful little path it is, clearly a relic of ancient woodland, as well as having been planted a century or so ago with birches and pines. Next to it, on the right, is a private wood, Withybed Wood, planted twenty years ago with predominantly native species, but with a nice mixture of some non-native trees and flowers. At the gate to it are some lovely cherry-plums, which fruited well last year, and a big patch of comfrey, an old herb used in ointments.

The current owner of the land on the left, John Impey, has recently replanted birch trees to replace the dying ones, and is planning to plant some pines too. It is good to see this land being managed, with the new little trees alongside the old track, and the older trees trimmed and thinned.

He has also established new ponds, helping to prevent flooding and providing a habitat for frogs and newts. There are a lot of ponds already in these fields, mostly old marl pits. Clay was taken from them down to the brickworks by the canal.

The Birches bridle path has almost every species of native tree. As well as birch there is a crab apple, native cherry, oak, ash, holly, beech, hazel, field maple, sycamore, blackthorn, cherry-plum, hawthorn, and a really good young specimen of wild service tree. These are relatively rare, propagating from suckers not seeds, though there are lots around Withybed. Over April, I watched all these trees come into leaf, one after the other.

Beneath the trees there is a great variety of wild woodland flowers, though because people sometimes put out garden waste here, there is a rather eclectic mix of garden flowers too! Early in the year it has dog’s mercury, the woodland harbinger of spring. Then there’s a big patch of wild garlic and beautiful wood anemones. It has primroses and violets, followed by bluebells, campion, yellow archangel and forget-me-nots. By the end of April I found a patch of sweet woodruff, a real old woodland plant not very common round here. This mixture of trees and flowers, including some introduced ones, is so typical of woodland near habitation. 

Right at the end of April, on one of my walks up here, I saw a great example of the old oak and ash story. You may remember the old weather adage: “Oak before ash, only a splash: ash before oak, many a soak.” The ash responds predominantly to light with its leaf-burst: the oak predominantly to temperature. Hence, in our warming climate, for the last decades the oak is nearly always first, coming out well before the end of April, and the ash in late April/early May.

This year the oak was late because of the cold, so it only just made it out before the ash – I saw one oak out just over a week before my first ash. However, the oaks come out gradually over a period, and quite slowly, whereas the ash trees rush out once they’ve started. So what I saw in several places was oak and ash at exactly the same stage in leaf.

Of course, the timing really reflects what has been, not what weather is to come. Here’s hoping for some more of the weather we had in April!

Water

1

I walk through my life alongside water

The canal, everyday and brown, quiet in the fields
Moved by bright narrowboats, moorhens and geese
Ghosts of coal-carriers and chocolate-crumb barges

The river, cold over the stones, undying note
Water to drink, fish to eat, boundaries to make
Winding into meadows where the cows breathe

The estuary, broad and salmon-bubbling
Drowning local men in its unmapped currents
Making mud that will catch your nightmares

The sea, beautiful and dangerous, mirroring
The moon or thrashing pebbles against rock
Singing a lullaby of mermen and seal-lovers

The falls, inevitable as loss of innocence
Sweeping a rainbow curtain into your eyes
A quiet man still fishing one pace above the lip

The rain, soft and green, one day changing
Into lion-mane torrents and flattened grass
Working into our cellars, destroying peace

The water follows me into my mind and body

2

Most of me is water. I don’t notice it
I seem pretty solid, and my blood is red
It must be sea that lays salt on the tongue

I started off swimming like a tadpole
In the warmth of the womb-sea
(Lucky not to be a frog princess)

So we all did, started off in the soup
Then the sea, crawling out on to the land
Gasping and growing lungs and legs

When the moon shines I feel it pull me
Working I exult in sweat, I glisten in love
And in joy and grief my eyes overflow

It is what makes me alive, and you
And every creature on this floating planet
Most of us is shared, is water, is life.


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