colours conservation countryside gardening landscapes nature reserves ornamental trees and shrubs trees Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust Winter Gardening

The Wonder of Willows – part one

We spent a cold February day at the Wildfowl and Wetland Trust reserve in Gloucestershire, Slimbridge. Work was going on coppicing and pollarding the many willows around the site. It is so good to see this ancient countryside craft still being practised. Many of the willows here at Slimbridge are ancient but there is plenty of planting of willows going on all the time. When the trees have been cut the wands are used around the site. In other parts of the country the willow prunings are used in cottage industries like basket making and hurdle making. Larger pieces are also used as fuel. Willows are so useful but also very beautiful, the branches of no two ever seem the same ranging from greens and yellows to oranges and reds. One in our garden has even got black branches which develop a white bloom on them in the winter, making it a beautiful addition to our garden.

The photo below shows a grove of willows through an observation hatch in a hide.

2015 02 12_9480

The photo below photo shows a craftsmen head down sharpening his tools and having a break from pollarding these ancient willows. The wands when cut are delivered around the site where they are used to make screens which allow the public to walk around the site without disturbing the wildfowl and waders feeding in the lakes, scrapes and estuarine mud.

2015 02 12_94632015 02 12_9467 2015 02 12_9466

There is evidence of recent coppicing and pollarding at every turn.

2015 02 12_9465

The pair of pictures below show a freshly cut willow and another showing strong regrowth.

2015 02 12_9458 2015 02 12_9451

Some of the older willow trees line the main paths and looking close up you can see the gnarled bark. Some are hollowed out so that in extreme case only a tube of trunk remains.

2015 02 12_9438 2015 02 12_9448 2015 02 12_9450 2015 02 12_9455 2015 02 12_9457

Enjoy this little gallery of photos of individual trees.

2015 02 12_9461 2015 02 12_9462 2015 02 12_9464 2015 02 12_9469 2015 02 12_9470

We came across groves of small willows pollarded at about 4 feet high. When freshly cut they look like a busy crowd of people.

2015 02 12_9476

2015 02 12_9472 2015 02 12_9473

The bowls of ancient willow after years of being subject to regular pollarding create a perfect moist area for mosses to thrive.

2015 02 12_9474 2015 02 12_9475

So there we have it – a brief appreciation of the willows at Slimbridge. They have an important role to play in these wild areas but of course they can also star in our gardens. But, as they say, that is a different story. Soon we will need to pollard and prune the many willows we grow in the community gardens of our allotment site. I shall post a blog celebrating those willows soon.

2015 02 12_9454 2015 02 12_9471

So there we leave Slimbridge with its wonderful willows and look forward to my next post about willows, featuring these versatile trees growing in much smaller places.


Britain in Bloom buildings community gardening garden furniture light quality RSPB sculpture water in the garden Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust

Hide’n’squeak in the allotments!

We are developing ever closer links with our county’s wildlife trust, the Shropshire Wildlife Trust and our allotment community gardens at Bowbrook. (see website and This year on the day of our NGS Yellow Book Gardens Open Day we planned a mini-bioblitz in the morning before the public arrived to share the community gardens in the afternoon. The Shropshire Mammal Group came along to lead the first session where we opened live mammal traps which had been set in baited areas around the wildlife areas of the site. The mammals were identified, weighed and recorded. The local children and their families enjoyed the chance of seeing these experts at work and were afforded the rare chance of close up views of some of our small mammals.

2014 07 08_1311

We had been spotting a weasel close to our Herb Garden recently and we had good, extremely close-up views of him as he was so confident. Some members watched the spectacle of him catching a vole – a bit gory but very exciting – the reality of life in the wild! The SWT and Mammal Group members gathered and set up their gazebo, before we all trouped off to find the first of the 30 live mammal traps set in our green spaces. The areas around the traps were baited with peanuts and peanut butter. Every mammal finds it hard to resist peanut butter!

2014 07 08_1293 2014 07 08_1292 Stuart our leader for the day carefully checked the traps, emptied them and if the trap had been fired tipped the mammal into a bag for inspection and weighing.

2014 07 08_1296 2014 07 08_1295 2014 07 08_1294   2014 07 08_1297

The critters were held up for all to see – a rare opportunity for the youngsters of our allotment site to see these creatures close up. They were help by the scruff of he neck just as a mother mammal would carry its young, which is totally harmless. This handsome fellow is a Wood Mouse. We were to catch several more of these.

2014 07 08_1298 2014 07 08_1299 2014 07 08_1300 2014 07 08_1301

The second trap was a repeat of the first. We were delighted to see that it had been tripped as the normal success rate is about 3 captures out of 30 traps. We looked set for a successful day!

2014 07 08_1303 2014 07 08_1305 2014 07 08_1306 2014 07 08_1307

We encouraged the children to get involved. We hope these will not only be the gardeners of the future but also the naturalists and almost certainly wildlife gardeners. We moved emptying successfully tripped traps and recorded many more Wood Mice as well as Voles.

2014 07 08_1309 2014 07 08_1310  2014 07 08_1308

The picnic site under the oak tree became an activity centre for the day giving youngsters the opportunity to get involved in nature related craft activities.

2014 07 08_1313 2014 07 08_1315 2014 07 08_1316 2014 07 08_1317

As we moved on from the oak tree we discovered several traps tripped by the tiniest mammals of all, the shrews.

2014 07 08_1318 2014 07 08_1319 2014 07 08_1320

But as we neared the end of our expedition we found the stars of the show, The Yellow Necked Mice. These are much more of a rarity than any other creatures we caught and for many a completely unknown one. Not many people seem to know of their existence so were delighted to find we had a colony living alongside us here on the allotments. It certainly justified all the hard work we have put in creating our wildlife areas.

2014 07 08_1323 2014 07 08_1324 2014 07 08_1325 2014 07 08_1326 2014 07 08_1327 2014 07 08_1328

In the end we were amazed by how successful the trapping had been with 27 of the 30 traps fired. We now know our green spaces are working for wildlife.   Back at the Communal Hut we opened up the tunnels put down to record the tracks of mammals passing through. These were covered in little foot prints.

2014 07 08_1334 2014 07 08_1333 2014 07 08_1332 2014 07 08_1335

The Mammal Society stayed on through the afternoon into our NGS Open Day and provided entertainment and information. They were kept very busy.

2014 07 08_1364 2014 07 08_1365

What a great day! It is amazing how fascinating such little creatures can be.

bird watching birds conservation nature reserves photography Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust wildlife

Go North – Find Spring

Living here in the midlands, neither North nor South, we always go South to get an early glimpse of Spring or north to get a late look at Winter. This year it all seems topsy-turvy!

Earlier this week we went North and discovered Spring!

DSC_0014 DSC_0016 DSC_0017 DSC_0037 DSC_0040

We visited a Wildfowl and Wetland Trust reserve close to the coast north of Liverpool, called Martin Mere, a reserve we visit regularly. We can get there and back in a day and the walking is on the flat. There are several hides giving views of pools, reedbeds and scrapes and the luxury of clear views of so much wildlife.

We expected to see the progress towards Spring a good few weeks behind our home patch but we were surprised to find evidence to the contrary. The flowers of spring were showing their golds and creams. We enjoyed the sight of  Celandines and Primroses glowing beneath hedges of Hawthorn bursting into the brightest green leaves, the brightest green it is possible to imagine. The quality of light highlighted the remnant seed-heads from last year and gave them a new lease of life.

DSC_0041 DSC_0042 DSC_0043 DSC_0044 DSC_0045

The commonest of wildfowl and waders fed alongside rarer visitors and we enjoyed them all equally. Just over seventy species of bird spotted in one day are testament to the quality of the reserve’s habitat management.

DSC_0020 DSC_0024 DSC_0035

I took lots of photos during our visit and not all of them fit in with the text above so just click on any shot in the gallery below to enjoy a slide show celebrating our first true day out this Spring.

bird watching birds conservation photography Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust wildlife

Martin Mere – “spectacular displays of feather and flight”.

The Wildfowl and Wetland Trust, in one of their booklets describe Martin Mere as offering “spectacular displays of feather and flight.” This is but one aspect of this special place, the large-scale side of it, but it possesses alongside the spectacular displays, simpler, smaller but equally special experiences for anyone interested in the natural world.

We had a long trek northwards in motorway commuter traffic to get there, but sitting in our slow-moving car with thousands of others creeping in four lanes over the Runcorn Bridge, we were content with the thought that we had a day of peace and wildlife to look forward to. Not a boring day in the office like most of those around us had to look forward to.

The flat land through which the road finally winds toward the end of our journey, was sodden with the recent heavy rain, the road covered in slime. The fields were full of leeks, cabbages and root crops, grown in the richness of the silted land. Turning into the site and we were in a different world away from the commuters, the farmers and away from reality. The noise that greeted us was the melee of calling geese and swans in their thousands all talking at once. The mere was full, hardly any water surface left to see. It was solid with ducks, geese and swan. A confusing site – where to look? Our eyes had to become acclimatised to the sheer numbers of wildfowl, the sea of confusion.

The majority of the swans were Whooper Swans with Mute and Berwick present in much smaller numbers. The Whoopers’ yellow beaks appear over-sized and over-bright, exaggerating the pure whiteness of their plumage. Their’s is the sort of white that washing powder manufacturers strive for. Pink Foot and Grey Lag Geese make up the majority of the geese and Shelduck and Pintails seemed to be the ducks of preference. Hundreds of Black Headed gulls in various stages of moult filled the gaps in between.

Looking carefully amongst these large and noisy birds we were able to spots waders, hundreds of Lapwing with smaller numbers of Grey Plovers and Golden Plovers. Larger Black Tailed Godwits and the much smaller Redshanks fed busily probing the mud with their long bills.

A short amble from the Mere is the diminutive Janet Kear Hide, which overlooks an intimate pool surrounded by small leafless trees, mostly willow and hawthorn. Here feeding stations have been set up to give close up views of the reserve’s smaller birds. Greenfinch, Goldfinch and Chaffinch dominate, feeding busily on the mixed seeds, with Great Tit and Blue Tit attracted to the peanuts in the hanging feeders. A real treat was the number of Reed Bunting using the feeding station. At Slimbridge we were excited to spot one, here there were dozens.

The finch family and tit family were also represented by rarer members, a Willow Tit and a Brambling. These were birds which a decade or so ago were frequent visitors to our garden in winter, but are now so seldom seen. A single Tree Sparrow was the only representative of the sparrows, as we did not see any House Sparrows that day.

The feeding stations here were so busy most of the time but were silenced three times, once by a group of fleeing Feral Pigeons charging through the trees pursued by a Peregrine and twice when a male Sparrow Hawk came ahunting. He reduced the Chaffinch population by one on his first visit.

Moving on to the United Utilities Hide and the Harrier Hide we passed through avenues of trees dotted with nest boxes and the ground below dotted with log piles and brash heaps, both great insect habitats. They are also useful hunting places for Wren and Dunnock.

The wind was blowing strongly, carrying cold air across the flatness of the land around this end of the site. When we opened the viewing windows our noses ran and our eyes shed cold tears. Shelduck were here in large numbers on the fingers of mud, spending their lunchtime preening.

During the afternoon we wandered  across to the other side of the reserve making our way to the Ron Barker Hide. We followed paths alongside a stream, the pathways overhung by bare trees of winter. Beneath them on the verges mosses took advantage of the extra damp atmosphere and colonised any rotting stump or fallen trunk. We were surprised to see so much fungi in evidence. Each stump a garden made by nature.

We arrived at the Ron Barker hide – it was busy. Rows of birdwatchers peering through telescopes, or scopes as they would call them, the front lenses poking out into the thin cold January air. “Third bush past the gate!” “Follow the shining fence down from the red tractor!” Instructions to each other, aids to spotting a rarity.

There was so much noise across the water, reeds and farmland beyond, bird noise carried by the wind to our cold ears. We joined in the spotting and scanning and were rewarded with the sight of a Snow Goose gently landing on rough grass beyond the nearest watery expanse. Alongside the Grey Lags and Pink Foots these smooth white geese appear delicate. They appear whiter than the multitude of swans bustling around them.

A Marsh Harrier was hunting on the edge of the farmland, flying low over the tall grasses and occasionally dropping down appearing minutes later with no sign of prey. As he followed a fence line he spooked a Hen Harrier, much smaller and slender. They hunted almost together for a while but occasionally the larger Marsh Harrier dived at the Hen Harrier putting it down. We watched this spectacle for an enjoyable ten minutes before they moved in front of the dropping sun, which hid them from our prying eyes.

We just had time left for another perusal of the Mere before the light defeated us. The swans now looked ghostly in the pink-tinted water. they were joined by more and more geese flying in to roost. The day finished with a real show. A Short Eared Owl was quartering the marshland abutting the mere, hunting voles with a periodic hover, his colours made richer in the late afternoon light. It is sightings like these that make the reserves of the Wildfowl and Wetland Trust so special.

bird watching birds conservation garden wildlife natural pest control photography Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust wildlife winter gardens

A Day at the Original Wildfowl and Wetland Trust Centre – Slimbridge

Our recent visit to Barnes, the WWT centre in London, reminded us that we hadn’t visited Slimbridge for a good few years. Bitterns were being spotted regularly so a relatively mild day in January seemed a good day to visit. A long and very slow drive down in the drizzle failed to dampen our enthusiasm. So having arrived an hour after we had planned a welcome cup of coffee was gulped down before we headed for the hides. Trouble is we had to begin by walking passed the flamingo enclosure – an assault on the eyes and ears. Not our favourite birds – the Dame Edna Everidges of the wildfowl world.

The walk to the first hide took us through wildfowl enclosures. We don’t stop here much but it was a favourite when our children were young, and is still a  favourite for young families today. it is a great way to introduce youngsters to the joys of the bird world. It is safe to say that many children who marvel at the beautiful fowl from every corner of the world become birdwatchers – their interest is sparked here at Slimbridge.

In this area pollarded willows with wands the colours of fire glow against the storm-laden sky. Some newly pollarded trees look like they are sporting designer stubble, others throw their stems rigidly into the air.

Flames of willow lapping the airforce blue sky.
Winter light gives so much colour to a dull day.

We arrived at the first hide after a twenty-minute walk through the wildfowl pens regularly distracted by the low winter sun and its magical effect on stems and stalks. The view from the hide was one of flat landscape of reedbed, river and shallow pools. Shelduck were relaxing on the grassy bank of a patch of cold looking water while mallard and teal flirted in the edge of the reed fringed pools. This was a quiet place with just the wind rustling the reeds, the whistling calls of the teal disrupted by the quarreling mallard. A small bird flitted from one reed seed head to another never settling, a brown backed warbler with rounded end to its tail – a cettis warbler. This is a sight worth the long journey to see. But Jude quietly whispered to me “I can see a bittern”. There it was, so hard to find and so easy to lose, skulking in the fringes of the reeds a few metres from the hide. Stripes of brown on warm beige, provided the perfect camouflage, the bittern moved so slowly like a clump of dried reeds. Jude saw it with head and neck stretched up – lucky lady!

Our view from the Zeiss Hide

We remained in this hide long enough to get cold and stiff after perching on the hard wooden seating, revived somewhat by regular coffees. Eyes soon become tired staring over such huge areas of wetland, so blinking and rubbing them was a necessity. But our tired eyes did see many delights, Pintails, Shovellers, Water Rail among multitudes of Pochard, Wigeon, mute swan mixed with Bewicks and the occasional heron flying in and landing on fenceposts. The only birds of prey we spotted were several buzzards all lined up on fence post on the edge of the river. Our eyes needed a rest and luckily the nearby Kingfisher Hide provides just this as the views are smaller, the birds more intimate. Here bird feeders hang in a tree just outside one of the hide’s windows. A half hour of close-up views of finches and tits while eating lunch is an enjoyable interlude.

Goldfinch enjoying nyger seed.

As Jude read an information board about kingfishers she informed me that they moved elsewhere during the winter but returned in March, but as she told me this one flew across the water low and purposefully. You can’t mis-identify a kingfisher, there is nothing else like it. Then it flew back across the water to prove he really was there. Beneath the feeders opportunist pigeons, blackbirds, moorhen and jackdaws joined by a squirrel picked up the seeds and peanut crumbs dropped by the messy small birds above. We enjoyed watching the antics of a Little Grebe as he swam around just feet from the hide, a delightful ball of feathers.

Greedy opportunists find easy pickings.

Picnic eaten and eyes rested we continued our tour of the site visiting smaller hides and enjoying the walkways in between. We passed the Rain Garden with the most wonderful, sculptural insect shelters.

The art of the dry-stone wall-builder provides shelter for wildlife.

Many of the birds have become so used to human visitors that they let you take photos without huge telescopic lenses, just compact digital cameras like the one I carry in my pocket.

It's not just me that appreciates pollarded willow.
The moorhen, common but beautifully marked and subtly coloured.
The coot creating his own patterns in the water.

It was between some of the smaller hides that we spotted the first good-sized clump of snowdrops of the winter so far bursting from the leaves that had dropped in the autumn to give the ground a warming duvet. Nearby gnarled old bracket fungi clung to equally gnarled old willow bark.

Bright lights in the gloom under the bare stemmed trees.
Such varied texture and so many shades of brown.

We reached the Holden tower as the poor light was fading further. The multitude of waders, geese and ducks were almost in silhouette now. A flock of Tufted Ducks had taken over one small pond exclusively, but the other pool was busy with Lapwing by the hundred interspersed by a scattering of their cousins the Golden Plover. Out on the far estuary Pintails could be seen feeding in the margins and Curley in the muddy banks. A real treat was spotting a female Reed bunting close to the hide atop a twiggy bush. She was a bird of subtle beauty. Completely unlike the black hooded male, she sported black and cream streaks all over.

Our view from the Holden Tower

The fading light that makes the afternoons in January too short, made us hurry to the South Lakes for a final half-hour bird spotting. Gulls, waders and ducks galore greeted us, unaware that they were being watched by a Buzzard in one tree and a Peregrine in its neighbour. We were entertained by a group of Black Tailed Godwit feeding in the shallows close to us and Lapwing moving across the shallower water feeding incessantly. Scanning the Lapwing flock with the telescope, I spied a small gang of Redshank, easily identified by their red legs. But amongst them was a different character, a slightly longer and down-turned beak and marked eye stripe and more marked plumage identified it as a Spotted Redshank. What an end to the day! Our time watching and appreciating the waders on the South Lake was  forshortened when the Peregrine launched itself from its tree top perch. The waders disappeared.

But it is not just the rarities that it is possible to see at Slimbridge, and we certainly revelled in seeing our Water Rail, Spotted Redshank, Bittern and Cettis Warbler, that makes this such a wonderful place to visit but is the enjoyment of seeing the commonest of birds in such a varied range of habitats. Journeying home we looked back on a day when we spotted over 50 species of birds some of them in their hundreds and satisfied with a short glimpse of the ubiquitous Bittern.

The common but oh so special Great Tit.
bird watching birds conservation garden wildlife ornamental trees and shrubs trees Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust wildlife

Wildlife in the City – Barnes

We went down to London for the day, not to see a show or visit a museum or shop in Harrods, but to go birdwatching. Not something I could have said a few years ago, but luckily for us and the residents of the capital city the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust have created a haven for wildlife right in the heart of the city. We hate cities and definitely hate driving in them, so we hoped our visit would be worthwhile. We were accompanied by our daughter Jo and son-in-law Rob who had recommended the place to us, so the pressure was on them! They are good navigators in cities which was most useful. Last year they visited and were amazed at 5 Bittern sightings.

The day dawned cold and wet with a bitter wind so we wrapped up in thermals and layer upon layer of clothing suitable for Polar Bear spotting. First impressions were favourable – the centre was attractively built, we were “meeted and greeted” by a friendly WWT person who told us where to go starting with the cafe. it turned out to be a good cafe which served tasty lattes and even tastier bacon butties. We reluctantly left the cafe’s warmth and shelter expecting to have to tackle the weather to reach the first hide. Wrong! It was in the same building as the cafe and a most comfy place to view the large expanse of water.

Watching the numerous species of duck against an urban background seemed somewhat incongruous. And watching a Peregrine spook the ducks in a diagonal stoop over the cold grey water  added to this feeling. We saw over 40 species of bird including Snipe, both Common and Jack, wildfowl such as pochard, teal and shoveller, but fewer small birds but we were treated to a close up view of a Stonechat, that dapper little alert chap dressed in russet and wearing a black cap. The Jack Snipe, Pintail and Water Rail were probably the star spots of the day. It has been 30 odd years since we last saw this diminutive Jack Snipe, the little wader with the  long beak that is surprisingly shorter and less ridiculous than the one sported by  its larger cousin the Common Snipe. We had a fine view allowing us to appreciate its wonderful striped head and russet wing markings.

Walking between the hides we were impressed by the wildlife gardens planted along the walkways. The dried stems of perennials and the stark outlines of dogwoods, willows and birches gave a taster of how attractive they must be in warmer months. There were examples of methods of attracting wildlife such as this magnificent “insect tower block”.

Coloured stemmed willows feature strongly as pollarded trees, hedges, structures such as arches and living fences. These yellow stemmed pollarded and coppiced specimens lit up the dull grey day.

Barnes certainly lived up to expectation even though the visitors’ favourite failed to put in an appearance, the weather being too inclement for the Bitterns, a bird that dislikes the wind. But it gives a reason to return. We plan to visit next in the summer when it will be interesting to see what summer migrants are in evidence in this wildlife oasis in the city. I know how corny the phrase “wildlife oasis” is, but how else can you describe this little gem.