If you drive up to the car park now, you’re in for a mix of a smooth and bumpy trip; smooth, because the whole of the access track up to the car park has just been tarmacked, but bumpy because there are now no fewer than eleven speed humps – possibly one of the highest concentrations of sleeping policemen in the country (other than at the end of a long shift at Scotland Yard). The track is now also lined with posts to prevent people parking along the verges, so we can look forward to less congestion and a summer that is altogether far safer, for drivers and pedestrians alike.
It hasn’t felt much like spring recently, but you may recall that at the tail end of March we had three delightful days when the temperature soared as high as 24.8°, and that is presumably what prompted a nightingale to be singing in the wood on 1st April, beating my 40-year record by three days. During those years the mean first date has been 13th April, so this spring’s arrival was really early. The mean maximum temperature in March is a fairly lowly 15°, which also emphasises the exceptional nature of the mini-heatwave. However, a return to an Arctic airstream for the first two weeks of April soon put a brake on migration, and the wood is still notably short of migrants, with even the modest population of chiffchaffs largely falling silent during the cold weather, presumably more concerned to keep body and soul together than to be worrying about maintaining a territory.
Mandarin ducks are now a fixture at Blean, though you are unlikely to be aware of their existence unless you make early morning springtime trips to the wood. For the past six years my survey visits have sometimes been enlivened by chance encounters with these amazing birds, usually pairs flying in great circles just above the treetops, calling as they pass by: for such a flamboyant, exotically plumaged bird, the male’s pathetic little croak is, to say the least, something of a let-down. Less frequently I have disturbed one or a pair from a pond. On 30th March I was intrigued to see three birds – two males and a female – standing on an oak limb fairly high up (you can’t refer to what these flat-footed birds do with their webbed feet as perching). After a lifetime of seeing ducks on water, finding them way up in the canopy takes some getting used to, but during spring the treetops are their second home, as the female nests in large cavities. Two of the birds appeared to be a pair, but it was difficult to establish the exact relationships, as the second male was tolerated at quite close quarters. One of these days I hope to find a nest-hole, or come across the furry black ducklings on the stream. If you’ve seen the film of newly-hatched barnacle goslings bouncing hundreds of feet down sheer cliff faces in Greenland, you’ll know that their light weight and considerable air resistance mean that they don’t drop like a stone, and can rebound several times against rock outcrops without necessarily killing themselves (though many do). So, for a mandarin duckling, dropping a mere few metres onto ground vegetation, their fall perhaps cushioned by intervening shrubbery, is a mere momentary flutter, and I doubt if any injure themselves in the process. There is, undeniably, a small risk involved, but choosing to nest in a tree hole does keep you out of the reach of foxes, hedgehogs and other predators, which then sets you to wondering why mallard and other ducks that suffer high nest predation rates haven’t also taken to the trees.
Freshly-tarmacked access track with one of the eleven speed humps
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