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Village Nature Diary with Mary Green

Snowdrops & swans

Posted on January 14 2010 at 8:50:53 0 comments

The swan family

Mary Green takes a walk through some wildlife in Cofton Hackett.

I will concentrate this year on special places and walks where you can see good wildlife. As I write in January, we are in the longest period of snowy and icy weather for 30 years. Lots of plants which were still thriving in autumn, or starting up early, have gone into dormancy again.

When you read this, we could still be in a deep freeze, or in the kind of mild weather we sometimes get in February. If a normal spring follows, a good old-fashioned cold winter shouldn’t do much harm to native wildlife, and benefit some. It kills off some diseases, and stops birds breeding too early and hedgehogs coming out of hibernation too soon.

Birds of prey do well, unfortunately because small birds and animals are dying for lack of food. In a normal winter 70-80 per cent of bluetits die: in the hard winter of 1962-3, 90 per cent died. They breed so effectively that the numbers are soon made up again. Kingfishers are hard hit, though they often move to the coast where there is unfrozen water.

My first walk is around Cofton. There are two reasons to do this walk early in the year. One is that it is mostly on quiet roads and dryish paths, at a time when mud abounds. Another is that I know you will find flowers, and other new life, during February and March. It is a lovely walk at any time of year, however.

Start the walk at Barnt Green, though of course you can start at other points if you wish. Walk up the B4120 towards Birmingham till you get to Kendal End – the only bit of “main” road – then turn right down quiet Cofton Church Road.

As you walk along you will see a newly planted hedge in the fields to the left – always a good thing. Later there is also one to the right.

Soon you come to Cofton Hall, a beautiful old building surrounded by big deciduous trees. These host good birdlife, and last time I walked here I saw a green woodpecker flash by. Green woodpeckers don’t go in for the loud drumming you hear at this time – that’s the great spotted woodpecker. The green one has a characteristic undulating flight, and a loud cackling call which gives it the common name of yaffle.

You should see and hear other birds at this time of year, and more later. The great tit repeats “great tit, great tit” over and over again. It is already singing even in the cold of January. The chaffinch should be in full song by the second week in February – Valentine’s Day is traditionally the time for birds to start mating. A bit earlier, you will hear it practising. One naturalist said it sounds like a cricketer running up to bowl, the twiddly bit at the end being the delivery. At first it just manages the run-up, then, as it remembers how, it delivers the full song.

There will probably be collared doves (call of three syllables) and wood pigeons (five syllables) and of course noisy rooks in the trees. By March you should hear the greenfinch, which has a twitter and a characteristic wheezy in-drawing of breath.

Almost opposite Cofton Hall you will see a good bridleway off to the left, with a tarmac surface. Follow this uphill. It is a clear path, presumably to the church from the village, and the hedge alongside it is old. You can tell this by the variety of native trees and bushes.

As you get to the top, you cross another footpath, the North Worcestershire Way. (If you were to go left you would re-cross the B4120 and go straight on up the Lickeys to the Visitor Centre – another good walk though probably muddier.) Go straight on towards the lake.

The hedge on the right has recently been properly cut and laid – a delight in these days – as have the other hedges down near the lake. They are growing really well and have good wildflowers along them later in the spring. At this time, you will probably see the first hawthorn leaves showing. Don’t forget that these are edible, straight from the bush or taken home added to a salad.

Some of the hawthorn hedges that were cut back rather early in September came back into leaf in the mild November weather. I hope it hasn’t done them any harm and they will come into leaf again as normal in February. There will be leaves of cow parsley along the hedge too, which can be used as you would cultivated parsley.

Somewhere along these hedges you could see cherry-plum out in February. This is a pretty, scattered white blossom on small slender trees. Last year it was late after the February cold, but it is usually out by the middle of the month.

Later in the month, or possibly in early March, you will see blackthorn blossom. These bushes are smaller and blacker, sharply thorned, with thick white blossom before the leaves open. You should see hazel and pussy-willow catkins on the bushes, and on the verges white dead-nettles, dog’s mercury, coltsfoot, and maybe daisies and the first violets.

The path crosses the end of the lake, with another marshy bit of water to the right. Unfortunately, as with most of the reservoirs round here, you can’t get anywhere near the water unless you belong to the right club. The lake has good wildfowl. Usually there are mallard ducks, moorhens, swans and coots, and I have often seen a heron.

Once I saw grebes there – they are a lovely bird with great courting habits. They dance and weave around each other, shadowing each other’s movements, sometimes forming a heart-shape with their necks. This is a good time of year to watch birds mating. Mallards nod to each other faster and faster just before mating, as if saying yes.

In summer this area is full of Indian balsam. This is an invasive alien plant, but it is very beautiful with its showy pink flowers. To continue with the walk, retrace your steps back to the cross-roads of paths at the top of the field. Turn left on the North Worcestershire Way. The path crosses a beautiful field, bending right before it reaches some trees and rejoining Cofton Church Road. The field path is usually relatively dry.

In recent years, the field has been used for field beans. This means it is not intensively farmed or weedkilled, so it had a wonderful variety of “arable weeds” in the summer. There is lots of camomile, wild radish, rocket, speedwell, the lovely little pansies called heartsease, some poppies, scarlet pimpernel, hemp-nettle, bistort – almost everything that grows in this type of cultivated field. Many of these are edible herbs. And, of course, there is some spreading Indian balsam, which is not. I hope they are still there this summer.

When you regain the road, continue left to Cofton Church. This is a delightful spot. The pretty little church is not very old or architecturally special, but the churchyard is lovely. At this time it will be full of snowdrops – one of the reasons for the walk – and soon of little daffodils which look like native ones. There are more big old trees, and therefore bird-life abounds here too. Churchyards can be great wildlife havens, and this is one of the best round here.

Snowdrops are often the first noticeable wild flower in early spring. They are traditionally associated with St Brigid’s Day, which falls on February 2, the Christian feast of Candlemas and the American Groundhog day. This is also the ancient Celtic festival of Imbolc, halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, marking the start of spring. According to legend, fair weather on this day means winter will come back. Snowdrops appear when the temperature reaches 6° C, and their leaves contain a substance that prevents them freezing.

Here you can turn round and walk back to Barnt Green if you only wanted a short walk. It’s worth going on a bit further, though. Carry on along the road, under the railway, until you reach another crossroads of paths, where the tarmac track goes right as a bridleway. Follow it alongside a stream on the right (good watercress) passing the Barnt Green sailing clubhouse on the left, to reach a lovely pond on the right, which usually has water birds.

When I walked here last March, accompanied by friends with dogs, a swan came out of the pond and made to attack the dogs. An angler pointed out to us that the pair of swans was nesting there. Later in the year while I was walking along nearby lower Bittell reservoir, I saw the swans with a brood of cygnets. I think they are the same ones that have now come along the canal, with six young adults, still in their brown-and-white plumage.

As I write, these swans are in the one clear patch of water in the thick ice, at Withybed Green, along with dozens of mallards! It has been interesting watching the water birds in the weeks of icy weather. They gather together and keep a patch of water ice-free so they can nibble at the edges and dredge for food. They also have the sense to do this next to the Crown Inn and the best sledging hill in the area, so they get well fed!
The geese, however, are missing and must have gone somewhere warmer. In the extreme cold, human beings had been walking down the middle of the canal, as well as some wandering sheep!

Usually I turn round at the pond and retrace my steps back along Cofton Church road, but for a longer walk you can continue on down the track past the top bit of Lower Bittell Reservoir. Again, you can’t get near the lake, only get glimpses, but there is a good stream and trees, though the track can be muddy. It meets Bittell Farm Road which you can follow back to Barnt Green. I will write more about this stretch in a later article.

February is such a contradictory month, sometime blossoming like spring, sometimes sunk in snow and frost. The poem this time comes from winter. The Withybed poets have enjoyed reading their poems with the Alvechurch Community Choir recently. The poets are meeting next in The Crown on February 3 at 7.30pm - everyone welcome.

Riddle

Beautiful
(so beautiful it chills your teeth) and useless.
Came suddenly and yet
you were expecting it and not surprised.
Makes every tree flower and
lays new bread and milk
on everyone’s doorstep.
Is an economic disaster
holds up traffic and makes you
gaze out of the window at work.
Takes over the news
driving out your politics. 
Makes you want to eat potatoes and grow fat.
Not easy to live in
but oh it makes you alive
spreads feathers on my shoulders
sparkles my eyelashes, my cheeks glow and
people smile.
Stealthily thickens round your life till you
can’t stand up, you become
a child, your feet slide and
you tumble together, wet
melts white on your tongue.
Too much of it and you stand wide-eyed
cut off from the world
burning your own fuel.
Won’t last, of course
but so solid you wouldn’t think it
would turn to water.
Love, did you think this poem was about snow?
Snow, did you think?


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