March appeared indecisive this year. One day's promise of spring was quickly replaced by a topping of ice and a sprinkling of snow. It's been as pleasant as it is cold, and as wet as it is dry. We have yet to get anywhere near last year's impressive high of 25 degrees, although the final days have at least brought bright sunshine, even if the temperatures remain unrelentingly cold. Regardless of the weather, the natural world is preparing for its new cycle of life.
It is an exciting moment, as the small nearby pond is partly covered with frogspawn. The eggs are glued together in one thick cluster of jelly, seeming to look back at me with a thousand patient eyes. The amount that will eventually make it through the long journey to tadpole, and then to frog, is dependant on so many variables, not least the drop in temperatures. But there is also the danger from predators, sitting so invitingly as it does on the surface of the water. Birds, mammals, fish, and other amphibians will all feast on this easily accessible, high protein meal. Disease is also an issue, as well as the danger of the frogspawn drying-out, so only a very small percentage will finally metamorphosise into frogs. Though the amount of frogspawn may appear excessive, it is proportionate to a steady survival rate and the continuation of a healthy population. Jim Foster wrote an interesting guide on amphibians for Natural England (2007).
Common frog frogspawn (Rana temporaria)
Despite seeing many toads, I am yet to see a frog in these parts, though the evidence of their presence is irrefutable. As seen here, the frogspawn is clustered together, while the spawn of a toad is laid across the water in long lines.
This is the same small pond where I saw a female mallard and her ducklings, last year. I do not know whether the same female has returned, but there is a "couple" currently sharing the pond, although guarding it maybe a more accurate description. The RSPB suggests that mallards lay their eggs between mid March and July, so it is possible that there are eggs nearby in the covering grasses. It may be that possession of this information has affected my perception, but the mallards certainly appear more furtive than usual, as they retreat protectively to the verges of the small pond. The mallards' presence may ultimately determine the success rate of the convenient frogspawn.
Mallard ducks (Anas platyrhynchos)
Female mallard (Anas platyrhynchos)
Along with the mallards, the goosanders have been a noticeable presence on the river, as are the wagtails (grey and pied), and white throated dippers. Between them, there is hardly a vacant stretch of water, as they busy themselves searching for food and nesting material.
It has also been noticeable how the birds on the river are keeping their feathers clean. The condition of a bird's feathers is instrumental to their survival. Feathers are essential in regulating body temperature, while keeping them clean, well-oiled, and appropriately arranged, ensures the bird is suitably waterproofed for their lives on and around the water (birds of Britain), where much of their food is found.
Female goosander (Mergus merganser)
Male goosander (Mergus merganser)
Although a familiar sight, it is difficult to know how many goosanders currently reside along the river. There may well be several, although the same (few) pair or pairs could be journeying up and down the river.
Grey wagtail (Motacilla cinerea)
At this time of year, the birds are preoccupied with preparing nests and food for the forthcoming generation, yet the freezing temperatures mean it is more important than ever for the feathers to be in pristine condition, and they can be seen using every spare moment preening their feathers. When a bird is scratching its head, or rubbing its head with the underside of its wing, it is distributing the oil from a gland in its body to places it can not reach its bill.
When attempting to take photographs, it never takes the birds long to notice my presence, and it is at such times that their preening becomes something of a peculiarity. Having noticed me, they seem to use the action of preening as a guilty man might use whistling. They appear to preen their feathers as a discrete, incidental action, while their main focus is always keeping an eye on where I am and what I am doing. It might be that they do not want to continue with their routine for fear of giving away the location of their nest. Or it might well be that I am reading too much into their behaviour. But it does seem quite deliberate. It is always my intention to keep my disruption to a minimum, and I endeavour to move on before the bird feels the need to, however temporary, hurry from its territory, food sources and nest.
Paired up, the grey wagtails could be seen flying along their stretch of water with an undulating flight pattern. On frequent dashes across the river, they would dart so far before returning to the safety of their perch. On other occasions, they would almost hover over the water in a jerky, tenuous manner, before moving with uncertainty to the nearest somewhere to land. I believe they must be looking for small invertebrate on or near the surface of the water, a main source of their food.
Pied wagtail (Motacilla alba)
The main difference I have noticed between the grey and pied wagtail is that the grey does not seem to venture far from the river, while the pied wagtail can be seen in the grounds of the sanctuary, in local parks, and even town centres. This particular one's behaviour was very similar to that of the grey wagtail, taking to the air with jerky unsure motions, in pursuit of invertebrate to eat. However, unlike most other birds, this pied wagtail did not have any obvious partner.
Along with the dippers, both the pied and grey wagtail appear content to live in relative proximity to each other. While the wagtails flight can appear a little haphazard, the dipper seems faster and more direct. There is a slickness to their agility. Another enthusiastic preener, the dipper seems to take cleanliness to another level, and completely submerges itself into the water for a thorough splash-filled bath.
White throated dipper (Cinclus cinclus)
Despite the cold temperatures, there are several other birds along the river, from the large herons to the tiny wrens. All use the river as a source of food which suggests the current ecology is continuing unhindered.
Grey heron (Ardea cinerea)
Wren (Troglodytes troglodytes)
Moorhen (Gallinula chloropus)
The two moorhens remain on the water surrounding Baboon Island, and their behaviour suggests there might well be more on the way. Never the most sociable of birds, they have been retreating to the same spot in the outer perimeter rushes, when a dart to the nearest convenient cover is their usual recourse.
On higher ground, in open fields, a pair of stonechats scour the grasslands in search of invertebrate. Their flight is relaxed and momentary, never rising above two or three feet. They move with the casual nature of fearlessness. My presence appears to trigger curiosity and not unease, as they venture closer with an inquisitive eye. It seems I am not identified as a threat, or perhaps their priorities lie elsewhere, and their mis-read behaviour is something of a warning. I have never seen their likes before, and their association with humans might be equally unfamiliar. They are small birds, no bigger than a robin, with a similar reddish breast. Both have a white collar, but the male's head is distinctly black.
Female stonechat (Saxicola rubicola)
Male stonechat (Saxicola rubicola)
Less conspicuous than the song thrush, the similar looking redwing and meadow pipit can also be seen searching the fields for food. The redwing is easily differentiated by its prominent red mark along the birds' flank.
Redwing (Turdus iliacus)
Meadow pipit (Anthus pratensis)
The meadow pipit is smaller than the song thrush, and has striped markings along its crown. The brown flecks continuing down its breast differentiate it from the tree pipit.
Not noted for being the most exhilarating of bird sightings, the woodpigeon can often be seen around the sanctuary. Seen here, proving that the importance of clean feathers is not exclusive to water birds alone, the woodpigeon is most easily distinguished from similar looking birds by the white collar, and distinctive black dotted eyes upon a light green circle.
Woodpigeon (Columba palumbus)
Black headed gull (Chroicocephalus ridibundus)
The black headed gull is also a familiar sight, and while the familiarity of gulls means they do not generally get pulses racing, it is always nice to see the black headed gull sporting its summer face and crown. The black head, which is actually dark brown when close enough to see, appears in time for mating season, and will return to white later in the year.
Red kite (Milvus milvus)
The red kite continues to be a daily sight at the sanctuary and surrounding hillside, and one I can never tire of seeing. Its presence, along with equally familiar buzzards, is again reassuring that there is sufficient food for their survival.
Rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus)
Although you are almost guaranteed to see a squirrel on every walk you take around the sanctuary, mammals remain the most elusive to spot. This rabbit was something of a treat, although it kept well under tree cover.
Perhaps the greatest encouragement for the coming months is the arrival of colour. Though the daffodils, primroses and snowdrops are gradually receding, they are being replaced by emerging flowers, like the lesser celeandine. The riverbanks are already beginning to thicken with the opposite leaved golden saxifrage, and though their flowers are yet to bloom, the ramsons' leaves, or wild garlic, are evident across the woodland floor. Spring is soon to be filled with the scent of garlic, and the vibrant colour of summer's self-expression.