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bird watching birds canals climbing plants colours conservation countryside hedgerows landscapes nature reserves photography Shropshire Shropshire Wildlife Trust wildlife Wildlife Trusts

A return visit to the Prees Branch Line – a canal nature reserve.

My brother Graham and his wife Vicky came to stay with us in early September and we went for some good days out, one of which was to the Prees Branch Line, a disused canal branch that never actually opened but now is a rich nature reserve, the longest wildlife pond in Shropshire. We have visited several times in the past at different seasons and enjoyed every walk along the old abandoned canal, as there is always so much wildlife to observe, encounter and surprise.

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The site sign hints strongly at its main wildlife star, the Water Vole with a lovely illustration, but this is a star who is a real secretive creature and visitors have to be very lucky to spot one. It is more likely to find stems of reeds nibbled down in the vole’s distinctive style, or hear the plop as it enters the water again a very distinctive sound. We have heard them plop and seen signs of their nibblings at this reserve but never as yet spotted one.

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We began our walk enjoying a coffee as we put on our walking boots and luckily spotted some fruit trees close by, the native Shropshire Damson otherwise known as the Shropshire Prune. This tree is a feature of Shropshire’s hedgerows and we have enjoyed many while on walks. These however were the sweetest we have ever tasted, the nectar of the gods.

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On this latest visit we were lucky to spot and watch for a long while a rare bee, the Moss Carder Bee which was a first for us. It appeared right in front of me as I was taking a photograph of a plant so I had the rare chance of taking photographs so effortlessly. The bee really just posed for me. Graham and I watched it for a while and got very close, close enough to appreciate the beauty of its delicate colouring and the subtlety of its markings.

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Not so long after this a similar thing happened. Again I was taking a close up photograph of a plant when a hoverfly firstly came into view above the flower, then landed on it closely followed by a second identical one allowing me to get these shots. Twins! Identical twins!

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Berries were at various stages of ripeness from hard green to the darkest of ruby red.

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And wild flowers added spots of colour to the impressionist painting that is the bank of the canal.

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There was so much to see as we ambled along the narrow track along the towpath of the canal branch line that never opened to barges just to wildlife. Rather than narrow-boats plying the waters it is Swans, Mallards and Water Voles instead! We barely moved forward a few steps before something caught our eyes and stopped us in our tracks. I took so many photos that I thought I could invite you to join us as we followed our canal side path “there and back again”. Enjoy!

As usual just click on the first photo and then navigate with the arrows.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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community gardening fruit and veg garden wildlife gardening gardens grow your own hardy perennials National Garden Scheme NGS Shropshire Shropshire Wildlife Trust wildlife Wildlife Trusts Yellow Book Gardens

Our Allotment Yellow Book Open Day

This was our 4th annual NGS Open Day at our allotments, Bowbrook Allotment Community. In the past we had been dogged by bad weather, heavy rain, high winds and once even excessively high temperatures. But today was to be different – the weather was perfect so we were set for a successful day. We open under the auspices of the National Garden Scheme and thus we are proud to appear in their famous Yellow Book.

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Members of the public are invited to look around the individual plots and all our communal spaces. They can follow our Interest Trail, look at the wildlife areas and the communal gardens and the children have quiz sheets to enjoy and can use the features we have made for our members’ children such as the Willow Dome, Turf Spiral and Willow Tunnel. We turn our Communal Hut and the area around it into a Tea Shop for the day so that our visitors can indulge in tea, coffee and home made cakes and biscuits.

All the money raised goes to the NGS’s charities including Macmillan Nurses, Marie Curie and Help for Hospices.

Here are a few of the scarecrow creations members came up with. Little Miss Muffit, Peter Rabbit, Little Red Ridinghood, Dr Foster et al.

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On one plot visitors were asked to help Little BoPeep find her lost sheep. I will admit it took me ages to find him for a photo shhoot

 

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The Wildlife Trust brought all this equipment for bug hunting and the volunteer from the Shropshire Mammal Group stayed on all afternoon entertaining and informing.

 

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Visitors took every chance to sit and enjoy our tea shop, where refreshments were on tap all afternoon.

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A few of the younger members just relaxed in the sunshine!

 

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Jude the Undergardener found a good spot to set her stall selling our herbaceous perennials she had grown from seed.

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Members were on hand to talk to our visitors, give advice and answer questions. Some visitors found comfy seats all round the site.

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A good day was had by all and we felt proud to have raised over £1000  for such good charities.

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conservation countryside flowering bulbs hedgerows landscapes light meadows nature reserves spring bulbs Wildlife Trusts

A Fritillary Meadow – North Meadow, Cricklade

We have a book at home where we list places we must go to, gardens we must visit and things we must do. A visit to the Fritillary Meadows in Wiltshire has been on our “Places to Visit” list for a few years now but we have been thwarted by the weather and the effect this has on these lovely flowering bulbs. This year we made it.

We drove down to Cricklade in Wiltshire and with great difficulty due to heavy downpours of rain making it hard to see, we found the first signs of where we were aiming for, The Fritillary Tearooms. The tearooms open each year when the Fritallaries are in full bloom and the proceeds go towards boosting the “Cricklade in Bloom” funds. Naturally we had to support them and so enjoyed a warming cup of coffee and a splendid cake before we embarked on our wet walk around the wet meadow. Apologies for the sloping photo of the tea shop but having one leg shorter than the other does sometimes result in strange sloping pics!

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We entered the reserve, called North Meadow, run jointly by English Nature and the Wiltshire Wildlife Trust, via a bridge over the River Churn, one of the two rivers that skirt the wet meadow, the other being the Thames. In front of us lay an old, flower-rich hay meadow situated within the glacial flood plains of the two rivers. The meadow covers a vast area of 108 acres. It is designated a Special Area of Conservation and a Site of Scientific Interest and is an internationally important reserve.

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We were never far from one or other river as we walked the reserve margins. It was good to see beautiful ancient pollarded willows much in evidence aligning the banks of both. Seeing these brings back memories of my childhood fishing my local brook “The Carrant” whose banks were lined with them. We hid inside them as many were hollow and loved looking up inside them spotting wildlife mostly spiders and beetles but on special occasions a roosting Tawny Owl. The willows were pollarded which involved pruning them hard back to their main trunks every few years to harvest the stems for basket making and hurdle manufacture.

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The reserve was one grand immense flat meadow which is flooded for a few months each year creating an unusual habitat for plants and all sorts of wildlife. At first glance we were amazed at the expanse of the meadow but somewhat disappointed at the relatively few numbers of Fritillaries visible. Seeing just one Fritillary is a treat though as it is such an unusual and beautiful flower. It is now sadly a “nationally scarce” plant.

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Even though the light was very dull we soon spotted more of the little beauties we had waited so long to see and realised that there were far more than we had first thought. We grow Fritillaria meleagris in our spring border at home and in the orchard meadows on the allotment communal gardens but we had never seen them growing in their true wild habitat, the wetland meadows. We wondered just how amazing they must look on a bright day. To begin with we found them in small clumps including the odd white flowers which although lacking the checkerboard patterning have a delicate beauty of their own.

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This wetland meadow habitat was home to other site specific species such as Comfrey and Kingcups, Lady’s Smock and Ragged Robin. Lovely old fashioned names for our native wildflowers. To maintain the special requirements of this collection of damp loving plants it is essential that the meadow is managed properly. It has to be grazed, used for hay and flooded for set periods.

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We were surprised to find one comfrey with yellow and green variegated foliage.

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Along the margins of the meadow we stumbled upon these little carved stones, looking like miniature milestones. We later found out that they marked the plots allotted to individual “commoners” for haymaking.

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As we reached about two-thirds of the way around the meadow the density of the fritillaries increased markedly and tall reeds grew on its margins.

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The last part of our wander around this wet meadow was alongside the river once again where Willow and Blackthorn trees grew happily in the damp soils.

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In a very damp patch we came across a clump of this very unusual looking sedge with its jet black flowers thus finishing off our visit to the field of Fritillaries with a mystery as we had no idea what it was.

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As we left the reserve we just had to stop and admire this old and very unusual toll cottage.

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colours conservation meadows nature reserves outdoor sculpture trees wildlife Wildlife Trusts woodland

In search of bluebells near Sugnall Walled Garden

So after enjoying our refreshment in the tea shop at Sugnall and refreshing our souls in the tranquillity of the walled garden we went off up a narrow lane in search of a nature reserve recommended by Geoff. We were anticipating the delightful experience of seeing and smelling the most English of wildflowers, the Bluebell.

Geoff did not let us down. We found the reserve and it was a stunning place to walk and enjoy what is best about the English countryside. A meadow, a marsh and a broadleaf woodland surrounded by traditional mixed farmland.

It was clearly signed and even had a box on the fence with leaflets in giving us a map and info. Jude the Undergardener loves maps so was happy before we even set off, happy enough to cross a meadow with cattle in!

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The hedgerow gave protection to a select few delicate wildflowers such as Red Campion and Stitchwort.

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As we left the meadow behind we passed a wet area alongside the track just before we entered the wood itself. It had a primeval quality to it.

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Entering the wood the temperature fell a few degrees and the strength of the sun weakened as we walked in dappled shade. The pathway look inviting and was soft underfoot as our feet touched the deep leaf litter.

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The scent of Bluebells was intense in the humid atmosphere below the heavily leaved ancient oaks, ash and beech. Below this rich scent lingered the warm aroma of leaf mould. Click an image below and use the arrow to take a stroll with us through the bluebells.

This little reserve is well-known for the huge and very ancient badger sett which covers a large proportion of the wood. Entry holes litter the slope all along one side of the wood. Evidence of their liking for the bulbs of the bluebells as part of their diet can be found. Small holes in the ground show where the bulbs have been dug up and consumed, the top growth, stem, leaves and flowers are left to litter the surface. These bulbs are poisonous to most wildlife but badgers relish them.

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Red Campion thrive mixed within the bluebells just as they did under the hedgerow along the more open meadowland. Campion and bluebell with their pink and blue go so well together.

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As ever, when visiting any woodland I spot the hand of Mother Nature in the natural sculpture she crafts.

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So two great places to visit within half a mile of each other and so different from each other. The two things they do have in common though are tranquillity and atmosphere.

Just before leaving for home we took a short stroll along the boardwalk through the marshland bordering the meadow near where we parked the car. Click on any image and use the arrows to view the short gallery.

Categories
garden design garden photography gardening grasses ornamental grasses photography Wildlife Trusts

The Frosted Garden – Part One

As a gardener I dislike the frost because it prevents me getting any tasks done but I love the way frost adds completely new character to the plants. The simplest bare stem or branch can come to life when the low sun catches a rim of frost.

As a photographer I dislike the frost as it makes my fingers hurt with cold deep down into the joints but I love the way light and frost adds a magical element not present at any other time. I find my fingerless thermal gloves a great help.

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Grasses, when frosted create line drawings. My eye and camera lens are drawn to them on every frosty day.

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Looking out into the garden on bright frosted days, the low morning light creates special moments as it catches the seed heads of perennials.
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In our frosted garden artefacts, ornaments and objects take on a new life. The copper obelisk looks black against the whiteness and it sports a delicate white coating. My next post will be about others.

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bird watching birds landscapes nature reserves Shropshire Wildlife Trusts

Bracken and Bilberries – Part 3. The Easy Walk at Stiperstones

In Shropshire we are lucky to have a few paths in nature reserves that are designed for visitors with mobility issues. The ones we have tried out are excellent, but the best we have experienced so far has to be the walk at Stiperstones. We tried it out when I was suffering with my spine and leg pain and followed the trail on crutches.

The route has been well chosen taking in many of the important features of the reserve and has a few useful information boards along the way. There are many resting places, some with wheelchair space alongside a bench for able-bodied companions. On our walk we were impressed with the design of seats for crutch/walking stick users. In actual fact seat is not the correct term – they were really like perches with backs all just at comfortable heights. Simple wooden construction makes them look like a section of fencing but they proved to be quite comfortable.

Every point of interest and each special viewpoint seemed to have a resting place perfectly sited.

The pathway and its resting places gave good close up views of many wild plants which sparkled in the low light of setting autumnal sun.

Alongside the track we came across a small patch of woodland being used for pheasant rearing. The local finch population had cottoned on to the value of this woodland and the easy food source. There are so few trees on the Stiperstones that this group of trees must have seemed like an oasis to small birds. The feeders intended for the young pheasants were attracting Greenfinches, Goldfinches, Chaffinches and Bullfinches as well as the odd Robin and Blackbird.

This was a surprisingly interesting and enjoyable walk so well done to whoever designed and built it. It combines easy access with features to view and plenty of info.

Categories
Land Art outdoor sculpture photography Shropshire trees Wildlife Trusts

Mother Nature as Sculptress

When walking in woodland it is remarkable how often we find wonderfully shaped pieces of wood, sculpted by mother nature herself. On a recent wander around a local Shropshire Wildlife Trust wood we found enough such pieces to create the following gallery.

 

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bird watching birds conservation photography Shropshire Shropshire Wildlife Trust wildlife Wildlife Trusts

A Canalside Ramble, There and Back. Part Two, Back.

Suitably refreshed we set off back along the canal to re-trace our steps. It is always good to do this as things look so different and there are different things to see that were missed on the way. The view below is a typical canalside scene with the barge, the canal workers cottage and the lift bridge.

We particularly noticed the remnants of ironwork and machinery once important to the working of the canal but their commercial uses are now long-gone. They are now used by barges as part of the new leisure industry, as canals are once again coming to life, and they create interesting patterns and shapes along the waterside for photographers to spot.

Half way back and a deserved break found us sitting on the stumps of coppiced Alders. This little coppice of Alders was alive and bustling with bird life. We heard their calls and songs and watched them flitting amongst the branches. Lots more Chiffchaff and Willow Warblers, Blue, Great and Long Tailed Tits. Their gentle songs were interrupted by the alarm calls of Blackbirds as Buzzards flew overhead. Those tiny songsters the Wrens sang with gusto as they moved rapidly low in the undergrowth. The real entertainers though were the two birds of the tree trunk, the Treecreeper and the Nuthatch. The little mouse-like Treecreeper flew between trees landing low down the trunks and climbed upwards searching the bark for insects, whereas the more burly and more colourful Nuthatch landed higher up and climbed downwards head first.

Wildlife today kept disappearing into holes. Blue Tits disappeared into their nest holes on the rotten branches of trees, Red Tailed Bees disappeared into holes in tree trunks low to the ground, Long Tailed Tits into the tiny holes in their neat spherical nests and squirrels into their dreys.

As we neared the end of our waterside walk we were startled by loud screechings emanating from the top of a clump of trees. The arrival of an adult Heron was all we needed to realise that this terrible cacophony was caused by hungry young Herons calling from their “rookery”.

On returning to the bridge nearest to the end of the trail the harshness of the light created dark shadows emphasising the beautiful curve of its arch.

From here on we kept coming across that wonderfully coloured butterfly the Brimstone in its bright yellow livery with a hint of lime green. these early adults were searching along the canal side and the hedges bordering the toll paths searching for the flowers of Dandelion and Cowslip. It was impossible to photograph one because they never stay still. They fidget and flit! But they glowed in the sun, such brilliance of colour.

The canal narrowed the closer we got towards the finish of our walk, as the reeds closed in on either side, leaving a narrow winding ribbon of water. This created interesting reflections of trees and fences on the opposite bank.

We caught sight of this rectangle of sheep’s wool caught on the fencing where a sheep must have been scratching to alleviate an itch.

We discovered a great place to walk and watch wildlife (we recorded 40 species of bird), to listen and appreciate the countryside of our home county, Shropshire. There are so many places still out there awaiting our discovery.

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bird watching birds conservation Shropshire trees wildlife Wildlife Trusts

A Canalside Ramble, There and Back. Part One: There.

Bright sunshine, the purest blue sky and warm, summer temperatures in March! What could be better than a walk near water? So we decided to visit a Shropshire Wildlife Trust reserve with its track taking us along the towpath of one of Shropshire’s many stretches of canal. An easy flat walk on soft grass – so kind to the legs and feet after busy days on the allotment.

We have been members of our county’s Wildlife Trust for about 40 years now and visited their reserves regularly when our children were with us but now they have left home and we have both retired we are enjoying visiting them anew. The walk we chose today was the Prees Branch Canal Reserve, described as a “2 mile long pond”. A Site of Special Scientific Interest because of the rare underwater plants, it is also home to one of Britain’s rarest mammals, the Water Vole. Thus it was with great anticipation that Jude, also known as Mrs Greenbenchrambler, also known as “The Undergardener”, and I climbed the stile into the reserve. The first sound to reach our ears was the loud call of a chicken who had just laid its daily egg.

The Prees Branch Canal was started in the early 1800’s and was intended to be a branch of the Llangollen Canal, but finances ran out so it was never completed. The trail we chose to follow runs alongside the 2 miles that were built and runs to its junction with the Shropshire Union Canal.

Just a few steps into woodland alongside a short dried up section of canal and birdsong filled the air. The most persistent songster was the diminutive warbler, the Chiffchaff. Throughout our day’s walk of almost four miles there was a calling Chiffchaff every 30 metres or so, and these early arrivals sing with such gusto to announce themselves to any females in calling distance. It’s call, the simple repetitive “Chiffchaff” call that gives it its name, was interrupted by the much more tuneful song of its near relative, the Willow Warbler. We saw so many flying from tree to tree or searching out insects in undergrowth.

The habitat in this tree-lined section looked absolutely perfect for the Water Vole but the closest we got to one was hearing the characteristic “plop” as one entered the water from the dried reeds followed by the every increasing circles of ripples. In this area, beneath the bare stems of trees in their dappled shade yellow flowers abounded – Celandine, Dandelion, Marsh Marigold and Pussy Willow. Later a snout popped up through the surface film of the water, and Jude stopped me suddenly and pointed. as it moved towards it we realised that the snout was attached to a frog and not a Water Vole. But we enjoyed admiring the frog’s swimming skills – perfect breast stroke clearly seen in the sparkling clean water.

Leaving the tree-lined section, we entered a much more open stretch where the water was crystal clear. Beneath the surface the green of new Yellow Waterlilies glowed.

Two male Mallards, their green iridescent heads glowing against the sky reflecting blue, paraded up the canal ahead of us. A single Mute Swan bustled from the dried reeds, a blue ring on its leg showing in the clear water. Clean white feathers, orange beak and blue leg ring.

We crossed this open stretch and after passing through an Alder coppice, we reached a busy marina and navigable waters. Narrow boats in all colours, all sizes and from all destinations clustered around moorings. From here on these boats chugged passed us regularly stirring up the silty bed of the canal. They sported a miscellany of names all saying something about their owners, their humour and their interests. Tadpole, Otter, Mouse, Earwig and Maple Leaf, Grace, Ondine, Montgomery, Jubilee Bridge and my favourite Django. That boat owner must be a fellow jazz fan.

Just beyond the marina we found a stile conveniently placed to lean upon, eat bananas and drink coffee and of course rest weary legs.

We passed under bridges which gave us a moment of shade from the sun which was gaining strength by the hour. Each bridge has a name, Waterloo Bridge, Boodles Bridge, Dobson’s Bridge, Starks Bridge, Allimans Bridge or a number. These hump-backed bridges carried narrow country lanes over the canal or tracks that took cattle or sheep from field to field. Under Boodles we were mesmerised by the sight of a Great Diving Beetle swimming powerfully to the water’s surface to collect its bubble of air. This is Britain’s largest beetle and swims with strong legs. It is large and powerful enough to catch and eat small fish called Sticklebacks.

Starks and Allimans were most unusual bridges – Lift Bridges. The trackways were carried over the canals by these low wooden bridges which boatman raise by manually turning a handle. As we approached Starks we watched a barge passing under, a skillful manoeuvre.

We stood on Allimans lift bridge and looked along the canal trying to decide whether we had enough energy in reserve to walk the last straight quarter-mile stretch to the T-junction where our Prees Branch Canal met with the Shropshire Union. It looked too tempting!

So we moved on slowly and here the canal cut straight through marshy land with scrapes and pools. From the towpath we spotted wading birds such as Lapwing and Curlew, and water birds such as Moorhens, Canada Geese and Wigeon Ducks. Squealing and wheeling above them were the ubiquitous Black-headed Gull.

Reaching the T-junction felt great and after crossing Roving Bridge next to Roving Farm, we found a seat! Just reward indeed! There were two benches placed in memory of people who had loved the canal in their lifetimes. We made ourselves comfortable with a coffee and a couple of apples on the bench dedicated to Edith. Thanks Edith we enjoyed your seat. Here we stayed a while enjoying the sounds of birdsong and watching the occasional barge passing along the Shropshire Union. Most cruised slowly and quietly in front of us and their occupants waved or called greetings. But one approached us noisily. We heard the engine and the “sailors” a long way off. The engine was so noisy that the sailors just had to shout to hear each other giving commands and advice. They needed advice as three men in orange fluorescent safety jackets stood on board a tiny tug barge pushing a barge along in front and pulling two behind. The barge snake zigzagged from bankside to bankside and progressed slowly, but provided amusing entertainment.

Quiet returned as they disappeared into the distance and we could appreciate the “yaffling” calls of Green Woodpeckers and the chattering of pairs of Wagtails, both Pied and Grey. Goldfinches and Greenfinches passed over head in pairs and a lone Buzzard wheeled high above.

(Part Two to follow)

Categories
bird watching birds conservation photography Shropshire trees wildlife Wildlife Trusts

A Wander Around a Hill – Earls Hill Nature Reserve

The weather forecast promised us sunshine, clear skies and mild temperatures in the mid-teens, so we decided to drive two miles up the road to park at the bottom of Earls Hill and walk slowly along the trail around the hill’s perimeter. The car park is in the woodland edge and stepping out of the car we look up into the canopy of tall deciduous trees to see Blue Tits flitting rapidly from branch to branch right up in the tree tops. Their calls sounded all around us.

The path inviting us into the wood.

An inviting pathway led us into the wood. It was comfortable and soft underfoot being strewn with fallen leaves and softened by recent rain. To our left we could see fishing pools through the old hedge of once-coppiced Hawthorn. The pools were almost as inviting as the woodland walk. The fisherman in me called. The Hawthorn was displaying first signs of Spring with buds bursting into the brightest green leaves. Here we were delighted to hear the call of the Chiffchaff, always the first of the Summer migrants to return to Shropshire. We always start hearing and seeing them around mid-March. They identify themselves for us as their call reflects their name.

New growth on the Hawthorn.

On the first section of track we were showered as we passed beneath willow trees by tiny pieces of the flowers as Blue Tits pecked at them. All around us the wood echoed to the sound of woodpeckers, the yaffling laughter calls of the Green Woodpecker and the territorial tapping of the Great Spotted. Further into the wood and our senses were bombarded by Wild Garlic, their bright green new leaves carpeted the woodland floor and their powerful onion-like smell permeated the trees. We could smell these Ramsoms a long while before we saw them and could still smell them a long while after passing them by.

Wild Garlic carpets the sloping woodland floor.

This early section of the walk was close to the edge of the woodland so wildflowers were stirring with the speckled light filtering through, Primroses and Pennywort were found alongside the path.

The glossy round leaves of Pennywort glow amongst paler mosses.

A patch of Primroses consisted of three solid flower-covered clumps. Those closest to the light were fully open while those just feet away but in slightly more shade were still in bud and leaning towards the extra light of the woodland edge.

Delicate yellow coloured Primrose.
Leaning towards the light.

Bluebell foliage is already a few inches high so we eagerly anticipate the blue haze of their scented flowers which should grace the wood in April.

Bluebell promises.

Beyond this first patch of woodland the trail took us over an open area of rough land dotted with flowering Gorse and stunted Hawthorns. Long Tailed tits and Great Tits fed in these scrubby bushes and called continuously, the Long Tails churring and the Greats calling “Teacher Teacher”. The hills of Yellow Hill Ants were scattered over the whole of this area like a rash of nasty spots on a teenager’s skin. This ant is a speciality of this reserve.

The ant hills of the Yellow Meadow Ants.

Beyond this stretch of open land, we entered another area of woodland but here trees were thinner and spaced further apart. Here stones are  strewn on the slopes and some slopes are cloaked in scree from the craggy steep cliffs of Earls Hill itself. On these crags Peregrines have nested for years, a clever choice as they are away from predators and the adult birds can look down over the scree and trees and spot passing pigeons, their favourite prey. From our garden we watch these magnificent falcons climbing and spiralling upwards so high that they disappear from view and occasionally we see their high-speed stoop from that great height. They reach speeds in excess of 200 miles per hour! But on our walk we saw them passing over the tree tops.

Slopes of thinly spaced trees amid scree.
The haunt of Peregrines.

In one area the scree was being recolonised by plants. We were amazed to see Verbascum, commonly called Mullein, growing here in good numbers. Being biennial the Mulleins were present as last years seed heads still standing tall and stiffly upright and amongst them the rosettes of silvery and heavily-furred leaves from which the centres of which this year’s flower stems will rise.

Softly textured leaves of Mullein.
The tall spires of last year's flowering stems of the Mullein
So many seeds must have burst from these pods.

Not much further along the track we came across a patch of ferns and amongst them discovered a bronze-leaved specimen. A true beauty, similar to one we grow in our garden. It reminded us of how Victorian gardeners became obsessed with ferns, collecting any with interestingly shaped or unusually coloured leaves.

The beautiful leaf structure of ferns.
The bronze leaves of this unusual fern.
Variation on a theme.
Beautifully subtle shades of green and bronze.

As we moved back into denser woodland our paths were frequently crossed by the unpleasant musky odours of Fox and Badger. Foxes left trackways through the undergrowth but the signs of the Badgers were much easier to spot as we found their sett. One tunnel had been recently excavated and huge piles of soil and stones deep from underground piled around its entrance.

The fox's smelly trail.
The Badgers have been busy extending their sett.

The commonest mammal on the reserve must be the Rabbit – we saw them throughout our wanderings their white tails bobbing as they disappeared at our approach. They must provide a useful food bank for the Foxes and Buzzards. We could frequently hear Buzzards calling overhead but we only managed to see two. One we spotted as it flew rapidly through the trees, keeping low to the ground as it tried to catch a Rabbit. The prey escaped this time! The other we spotted sat on the topmost branch of a Hawthorn bush in a field nearby, looking as if he was waiting impatiently for thermals to help him get airborne.

Throughout the wood there were excellent habitats for insect and invertebrates, some created by Mother Nature where trees have fallen and are now rotting and others made by Shropshire Wildlife Trust volunteers who create wood piles and brash stacks when they perform their management activities around the reserve. Rotting wood is particularly popular with beetles.

Fallen and rotting tree trunks are beetle heaven.

Throughout our circular walk around the base of Earls Hill we enjoyed listening to the song of our native thrushes, the repetitive phrases of the Song Thrush, the gentle ditty of its bigger cousin the Mistle Thrush and the flute like tuneful song of the Blackbird. All were males calling out to proclaim ownership of their territory and letting females know how good they would be as partners. It was noticeable that the thrushes we heard were our resident thrushes and there was no sign of the winter visiting thrushes, the Redwings and Fieldfares. They must now have left our shores to make their journey home.

Occasionally through gaps in the trees we enjoyed glimpses of views of the countryside. When walking in woodland you become so absorbed in its atmosphere that you forget what the outside world is like. These glimpses of the countryside reminded us of the thin mist overlying and obscuring the nearby hills and farmland.

One sign of the approach of Spring was the nest-building activity of birds large and small. We watched Bluetits delicately collecting lichen from branches of Hawthorns. Rooks clumsily gathered twigs too large to easily carry through the close growing trees. They were nesting in their rookery in a clump of tall trees across the fields bordering the reserve. We heard the snapping of the brittle twigs as they broke when lifted and carried by the Rooks.

While wandering we enjoyed the textures, patterns and colours on tree trunks and the shapes of fallen trunks and branches. It made us think of Mother Nature as artist and sculptress. (Look out for future blogs on the artistry and sculptural skills of Mother Nature)

We returned to the car park as the temperature began to drop, vowing to return when the woods were full of summer migrants. We have the songs of warblers to look forward.