I’ve come across a new (for me) wildlife site not far from where I live, it’s great, a huge sewage treatment works sits slap-bang in the middle of it giving off the most horrid odours that come in nauseating waves whenever the wind changes. It is also immediately to the east of one of England’s busiest airports, so you are never more than a minute away from the thundering cacophony of a huge passenger-jet as it cruises in to land no more than a few metres above your head (well, that’s what it sounds, and feels, like anyway). Then there are regular trains clack-clacking along the rail-line that services the airport, a vast sea of shiny cars parked in one of the long-stay areas hems in the site to the north and a beautiful (he said through gritted teeth) new housing development is being hastily glued together just to the south of the site.
Of course, none of this human noise and construction seems to make any difference to the wildlife living in this haven, certainly not the birds, which are plentiful. Most of this site is native deciduous woodland, some of it is quite old (as evidenced by the carpet of sprouting bluebells), there is plenty of scrub and three ponds, and a stream runs through a large area of flood-meadows. Yesterday I made my first spring visit to the site, on what was a gorgeous day of warm sunshine and fluffy cumulus clouds, best of all I didn’t see a single other human in three hours.
I set off walking through the woods determined to make a concerted effort to accurately record the number of each bird species I saw, usually I give up because it can get quite difficult to keep counting common species over hours. The floor of the wood was covered in the fresh green spears of Bluebell and Ramson leaves and the shield-shaped leaves of Lords-and-ladies were pushing up in tight bunches everywhere – I can’t wait for these all to flower. Blue Tits and Great Tits were by far the commonest species in the woodland, I counted 31 of the former and 22 of the latter during my visit, most of which were in pairs and singing.
Not far into the wood I came across three Great-spotted Woodpeckers; a male and a female who were having a tiff on a Birch trunk (the female seemed irritated by the males advances) all the while another distant bird was drumming. At exactly the same time I noticed a pair of Jays in the canopy, one of them (presumably the male) was actually singing – or rather it was making a continuous stream of quiet bubbling squeaks and gurgles and warbling noises, which are hardly musical but are more melodic than you would expect from a crow. Not long after that a beautiful Treecreeper landed in front of me on a trunk and I got excellent views of it gradually working its way up the tree searching for morsels of food in the bark.
As I walked next to an ancient hedgerow formed of mature Oak trees a male Goldcrest was loudly repeating his high-pitched song, which I always think sounds like a bicycle in need of oil on the chain. As I watched this tiny songster two Long-tailed Tits passed by, a Chaffinch perched in one of the Oaks nearby, a female Bullfinch all too quickly flew across my field of vision and a Buzzard cried out as it glided overhead. Somewhere in the wood a Chiffchaff was proudly shouting out his name. A rustle in the leaf litter drew my attention, looking through the trees I could see a shuffling, lumpy grey shape slowly making its way across the wood – it was a Toad, the first I’ve seen this year.
I noticed two Nuthatches up in the canopy, one of them was sitting on a branch in full sunlight with his feathers fluffed out, preening himself and occasionally uttering a quiet ‘peep’ – Nuthatches are quite active creatures and this was the most content one I’ve ever seen. Later, as I was taking a look at one of the small ponds a buck Roe Deer with velvet antlers spotted me and made a dash for it, his white rump flashing back at me as he ran up the path. Two brown thrushes gave me the run around for ten minutes as I chased them from tree to tree in an increasingly frustrating attempt to get a good enough view to identify them, I thought they were Song Thrushes but when I finally managed to see one properly in a Holly bush it turned out they were Redwings, nice.
When I had made my way to the far northern section of the woodlands, where the trees are widely spaced and few people venture, I sat down on a log and just enjoyed being surrounded by nature. A Chiffchaff sat above me and sung for a while, then a Great Tit spent ten minutes calling and hopping through the branches around me, often getting quite close, great big bumblebees trundled through the air low to the ground in search of nest sites. My feet were nestled amongst the Bluebell bunches which were almost visibly growing upwards, bursting through the leaf litter for the sun, bird song was all around me and the clear, pure sunlight of early spring was flowing through the bare branches of the trees and glowing on my skin.
Not long after this I was quite surprised when the laughing call of a Green Woodpecker shattered through the canopy quite close by, despite its proximity I failed to locate the bird – although they are notoriously shy and secretive. Once more I heard the whistling calls of a Bullfinch, but they seem skilled in ventriloquism as I also failed to spot the bird making the call – it vanished into the scrub from whence it came.
I then made my way out of the wood and onto the flood-meadows next to the stream, which were still very wet with standing water. Carrion Crows and Starling were numerous here and I also saw quite a few fly-over Stock Doves, I was pretty chuffed when a pair of Grey Wagtails flew calling right over my head – their long tails and bright yellow bellies very distinctive. Best of all was when I noticed some Buzzards rising on the thermals over the woods – at first only two, then three, then another two farther off, then a couple of distant ones, then one had suddenly appeared quite close. When I had finally located and counted them all there were 13 all in the sky at one time!
I also managed to find a large owl pellet under a huge old free-standing Oak, it was mostly made of mammal fur but it had quite a few small bones sticking out of it, going by the size it may well have been from a Barn Owl.
To finish a lovely walk a Grey Heron rose up from the stream bank and moped off over the wood to goodness-knows where, a Pied Wagtail also shot past – calling its familiar ‘Chiswick’ note over and over. I had been quite disappointed not to see any butterflies, which was odd considering the warmth and sun, but a rather brief Small Tortoiseshell which flew over the meadows towards me was better than nothing. All in all I saw 31 species of bird, including 3 Goldcrests, 6 Great-spotted Woodpeckers, 2 Moorhens, 3 Goldfinch, 12 Wrens, 5 Chiffchaffs and a single Coot. Not bad considering the location, I will have to come back later in the season to see what summer migrants have arrived, as well as enjoy the Bluebell spectacle of course.