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A Walk along the Montgomery Canal – There and Back – Part 2 Back

My last ramblings left us just as we retreated into the shelter of the wooded bank of the canal, through the little wooden gate. Inviting as the shelter was I was tempted to linger and photograph the silvered wood and rusted, pitted ironwork on the gate.

It always surprises me just how different a return journey can be. Different things catch the eye, different sounds invade the ear, different scents entice the nose for a closer appreciation. We found wild flowers, trees and bushes that we had not spotted on our way and enjoyed different reflections on the mirrored surface of the canal.

When we reached  the spot where we had stopped for a coffee break on the way we stopped once again and leant on the same gate, but it was not quite a case of deju vu.

From our coffee-drinking, gate-leaning vantage point we  watched sheep grazing on the field beyond the far-bank trees and spotted a long, low red-bricked barn half way up the sloping field.

The footbridge that passed over our heads provided ample opportunities for some creative picture-taking.

These little banded snails with their glossy coloured shells decorated with chocolate or black bands which followed the spiralling shape of their shell homes, began to appear after the shower of rain.

Canalside paraphernalia draws attention along any towpath walk, bringing to mind queries and questions of their uses and names. This first object was a simple arch of iron appearing from the ground and disappearing about a dozen feet further along the towpath. We couldn’t work out what its purpose  could possibly be but it did present a graceful archway in the grass.

As we follow the last stretch of the Montgomery Canal back to our starting point of a few hours earlier we can look at the different native plants we found and views of the canal that we enjoyed.

What an inspiring way to spend an afternoon that presented us with uninspiring weather. We enjoyed this wander very much were saddened to see that in such a beautiful place the selfishness and laziness of a few can leave their mark – plastic litter, probably one of the most damaging marks of man’s existence.

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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)

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Brandon Marshes – a Warwickshire Wildlife Trust Nature Reserve.

Once you have visited Brandon Marshes you have to congratulate Warwickshire Wildlife Trust for creating and maintaining such a wonderful reserve, with so many different habitats to explore. Woodland, pools, marsh areas, reedbeds and grassland. Seven hides are situated where you can appreciate the different birds using the reserve. And we can’t fail to mention the coffee shop with big windows affording great views of busy bird feeders, which attract Great Spotted Woodpecker, Bullfinch, Siskin and Reed Bunting as well as the usual suspects.

The reserve is designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest and boasts 2 km of paths for the wandering bird watchers to enjoy. It is hard to believe that you are just a few miles from Coventry, and that the site was used for sand and gravel extraction until the 1980’s. In fact this extraction still goes on adjacent to the reserve but you soon forget it is there and ignore its noises.

On the day of our visit the weather started cool and misty but cleared and warmed up later so we were able to stay in the hides for a long time without getting cold. We spotted 53 different birds including some of my favourites like Bittern, Snipe and Kingfisher. We were privileged to see two Bittern in flight close to and were able to appreciate their wonderful colours and markings. The Snipe were present in good numbers spotting groups of 12 and 9 whereas Golden Plover and Lapwing were present in very large numbers. A real surprise was the number of Bullfinches around the reserve. We reckoned we had seen more on that day than the total for the last 5 years or so. A flock of 8 were feeding close to the path just 100 metres or so from the hide and a second feeding group of 5 were seen after another 50 metres walk along the track.

Ducks and gulls of course were present in large numbers. Among the usual Blackheaded and Herring Gulls we spotted two rarities, a Glaucous and a Mediterranean, both firsts for us.Tufted Ducks and Teal were the most numerous with Gadwall, Pintail and Goldeneye the most unusual.

The next two photos show a male “Tufty” who obligingly stayed above water between dives to allow me to take a shot, but the Teal proved oh so different. He never stopped feeding resulting in lots of failed pictures.

Between hides we walked through woodland and along the edges of reedbeds and marshy areas. On a bank we spotted clumps of Primroses growing in profusion, with a few in flower. We could only imagine how wonderful they would look in a few weeks time.

In a marshy area with small trees and bushes we were delighted by the lichen on the branches of the trees and these rich red fungi growing close to a tiny trickle of water.

Returning to the car at the end of the day the sun was getting low in the sky and backlit this oak leaf to give it the look of burnished copper. We promised ourselves a return visit when the summer migrants have arrived.

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Welsh Estuary Wildlife Walk

We left home as the sun was about to rise. The car’s thermometer told us it was already 9 degrees. Things were looking good for a day’s wandering around the RSPB’s reserve at Conway in North Wales. Driving off into Wales the sun rising behind us gave the sky a warm orange glow and the dull flat grey concrete of each bridge we passed under looked as if it was being warmed by fire.

The problem with the coast of North Wales is that it has its own weather! Today was no exception – the closer we got to our destination the duller the sky became and drizzle began to fall. It was to continue all day! Looking out over the reserve it looked very grey indeed!

We stopped near the reserve entrance overlooking the estuary – the tide was well and truly out so it was sand and mud as far as the eye could see. On the sand a few waders probed for invertebrates – a couple of Curlew, a Redshank and a Little Egret.

We entered the reserve proper and wandered along board walks and soggy gravel paths towards the scrapes and pools. At the first hide were treated to a view of a Water Rail, that little beautifully marked rail, much smaller and harder to find than its larger cousins the Coot and Moorhen, who were here wherever we looked. Dozens of Teal, Mallard, Canada Geese and Shelduck fed busily in shallow water and on the muddy margins. Out in open water Tufted Ducks dived constantly for food. A real surprise was a pair of Goldeneyes! The award for the star of the show on this body of water was the Red Breasted Merganzer. Six of these saw billed ducks actively dived for food stopping only for an occasional skirmish. The males looked most dapper with their black and white bodies topped off with green-black heads, red eyes and long thin red bills. Their wispy crests fluttered in the wind.

We moved on wandering through areas of scrub and small trees where Meadow Pipit and Linnets were spotted, through marshy ground and finally reached the estuary. Here the breeze turned to a freezing strong blast, making it hard to look for wildlife. In the muddy foreshore a dozen or so Redshanks fed with even more Black Tailed Godwits. Two Shoveller fed amongst scores of Shelduck in areas where water remained.  Both these species of duck were upending in their search for food in the shallow water. Our walk had taken us in such a short time from the sheltered area close to the reserve centre and coffee shop to this wilderness of wind, mud and driving rain.

The depth of the dark sky overhead varied as the drizzle came and went. It was amusing to watch the reaction of a Grey Heron to the arrival of the wetter, darker weather. He really seemed to sulk. The two following photos show the change in his attitude – a real mood swing!

He was not a very lively Heron at all. He definitely disapproved of the wet weather. the only time he made any movement was when an Egret landed near him and he let out a loud unpleasant “cronking” noise, sounding more like an animal than a bird. The Egret flew off but we were lucky enough to get a long very close up view of him from a hide near the estuary itself when we stopped for lunch and to escape the strong cold wind.  Seeing these two members of the Heron family together illustrated just how different they are. they both sport crests and shape wise they are almost the same but the Grey Heron looks much bulkier and dull in its black, grey and white plumage. The Egret is the purest white possible in a bird and is slender in profile. The Egret sports a crest on top of its head but also is graced with long wispy feathers hanging down its chest.

We watched our Little Egret feeding just in front of the hide. He performed a shuffling feet dance to stir up the mud and disturb invertebrates and small fish. At other times he seemed to stalk his prey moving slowly, cocking his head and then stabbing at a small fish with his beak. In close up we were amazed by his bright yellow feet – usually you only see his black legs as he wades in shallow water – and a matching yellow ring around his eyes. This sequence of three photos follows him as he stalks in shallow water.

He seemed to feed continuously in sharp contrast to the Heron who had time to just stand and hide from the Welsh weather. Only once did we notice the Little Egret take his mind off hunting. Another Egret flew across from the neighbouring pool and our Egret immediately launched a vicious attack driving the intruder away. The aggressive noise he made was the same harsh “cronking” noise made by the Grey Heron, described in one of my books as “fraink”.

We moved back to the calm of the centre buildings and treated ourselves to a latte and cappuccino. This is the perfect bird reserve cafe as it serves excellent food and coffee and has a whole wall of glass overlooking a scrape, reed areas and bird feeding station. Here we relished our coffees, warmed up, dried off and enjoyed close-up views of Siskins, Reed Buntings and Goldfinches feeding.

We got soaked, our eyes and noses wouldn’t stop running but what a great day we had. This reserve is worth a visit at any time of the year. The facilities are great and the volunteers most pleasant, knowledgable and helpful.

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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.
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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.