We have two work parties here at RSPB Sandwell Valley: one on a Tuesday morning and one on a Friday morning. They are an integral and vital part of our team, taking on the practical side of our conservation work and heading out in all weathers to help preserve and improve our nature reserve. This can include doing anything from sowing seeds and pruning bushes, to landscaping gardens and creating fences.

One of our newest work party volunteers, David, has been keeping a journal of his different wildlife encounters on the reserve dating back to his first day as a volunteer in November 2018. Read on to find out about his experiences…


REFLECTIVE JOURNAL: PART 1 (November 2018 – January 2019)

MY FIRST DAY AS A WORK PARTY VOLUNTEER AT SANDWELL VALLEY RESERVE

SPARROWHAWK

I was lucky enough to wake to a bright, sunny morning for my first work party task at RSPB Sandwell Valley which involved removing the large inclined wooden bed from its sturdy base. This proved to be a challenging collaborative team effort but ultimately successful.

In the process of doing this I looked up to see a sparrowhawk slowly gliding overhead, a large female looking resplendent with the sunlight accentuating her beautifully barred chest and wings. I took this to be a good omen as it is one of my favourite birds.  Apparently the female sparrowhawk at Sandwell Valley is often seen, especially in the bird-feeding area which is good to hear, but maybe not if you are a passerine.

I did actually come across one of her kills in December. A feral pigeon, recently partly plucked so assume she had been disturbed from it. I sincerely hope she finds a mate and raises a brood on the reserve this year.

BIRD-NETTING AND RINGING

In the afternoon of my first day I was fortunate enough to observe various aspects of bird-netting and ringing; a much welcomed and pleasant surprise. A variety of passerines were caught: great and blue tit, bullfinch, dunnock and goldfinch.

It proved to be both an educational and thought-provoking experience some of which I would like to share. The delicate, intricate markings of a netted blue tit were a truly beautiful sight. A gorgeous little bird when seen in such close proximity. The birds were carefully removed, ready for measuring and weighing later. I was left alone for a few minutes and during this time the two remaining birds, both great tits, eyed me suspiciously accompanied by their vocal protestations. They both stared transfixed in my direction as I stood motionless. In an attempt to reassure them I quietly said:

“You can stop that noise you two, we are not here to hurt you”

Surprisingly, and amusingly, both fell silent and continued to observe me.

Later the birds were weighed and measured in the presence of a party of visiting school children and their teachers. To witness the childrens’ genuine excitement and delight at seeing the birds and demonstrating good identification skills was wonderful. To nurture such interest at a young age is imperative for the future of nature conservation.

It was interesting to learn that green outer primaries on the wing of a blue tit indicated a bird hatched in the preceding spring.

The school party left in high spirits and we returned to the visitor centre in the descending crepuscular light.

I appreciate I was very fortunate to have seen and experienced all of this on my first day at the Sandwell Valley reserve and it will remain with me for a long time. Thank you to all associated with this event.

In conclusion for this section, as the Lake-land poet William Wordsworth eloquently said:

There are in our existence spots of time
That with distinct pre-eminence retain...
 

OTHER ACCOUNTS FROM AROUND THE RESERVE

SNIPE, BUZZARDS, CORVIDS AND FOXES

Willow cutting, a true test of a volunteer’s stamina and commitment to practical nature conservation, has been carried on a number of occasions by myself and other volunteers on the reserve near the lake beyond the bird feeding area.

While doing this on a bright, clear autumn morning I saw a total of five common snipe. The common snipe is a small, well-built wader with a long bill for probing in mud usually for invertebrates. Its cryptic colouration makes it difficult to see and only flies off when approached closely using a characteristic zig-zagging flight.

In addition to observing the snipe it was also aesthetically pleasing to look and listen to the lake avifauna and the changing mood of the scene with the subtle discernible variations in light, frost and mist.

Later that morning a pair of buzzards glided over unhurriedly. A lovely sight.

The common buzzard or tourist’s eagle is an increasingly common sight throughout the Midlands.

While removing soil from the new wildflower meadow area in December I looked up and saw in the neighbouring field a pale coloured buzzard being harassed and chased by two carrion crows. A regular spectacle on various parts of the reserve I have since realised.

One for sorrow, two for joy, three for a girl…

Does anyone know what it is for fifteen magpies?

That is what I saw one autumn morning vocalising noisily, with that distinctive rattle call, in the trees near the railway bridge when attending a work party day in November. I looked over the bridge and to my delight I saw two foxes, their coats a thick russet brown and healthy looking. They were wary and rather skittish so I swiftly removed myself from their sight. It was a pleasant start to the day to see Reynard and his companion looking in such good condition.

 

CLEANING NEST BOXES IN WINTER

On a late January afternoon I assisted in checking and clearing nest boxes around various parts of the reserve after working on the wildflower meadow project in the morning.

It proved enjoyable and educational to witness the intricate, delicate construction of the nests made with a variety of materials. These box nesters are truly accomplished avian architects. In addition, I was interested to see the actual size of unhatched great tit and blue tit eggs and commented on how remarkable it is that all the genetic information required to make a blue tit is contained within its small beautifully marked shell. To be informed of how one female was seen to have laid twelve of these in a box previously only reinforced my affection and affinity for such an attractive, diminutive bird.

It was surprising to observe bluebell leaves well above the leaf-litter, which is early I think. In addition, it was pleasing to see bracket fungi as well as the vivid verdancy of the mosses on bare logs and trees in parts of the reserve.

A lovely sight on a winter’s afternoon on trees bereft of foliage apart from ivy noticeable on some trees, a haven for roosting tawny owls.

 

HEALTH AND WELL-BEING

As I think many of us will testify, physical outdoor work, particularly when it has a conservation function and focus, can be both rewarding and mood-enhancing. Just being outdoors and savouring the sights, sounds and smells of nature is an invigorating multi-sensory experience which facilitates good physical and mental health.

From a personal perspective I feel the physical disconnect between people and nature and indeed the social disconnect between people themselves is a major contributing factor in depression.

It is interesting to see that many GPs are endorsing countryside walks together with other forms of physical exercise and community-based activities to lessen the impact of isolation and improve mental wellbeing as well as physical health.

Research at the University of Bristol in neuroscience has shown that a particular species of soil bacterium, Mycobacterium vaccae, stimulates serotonin-releasing neurones in a specific brain region that is also influenced by the anti-depressant Prozac.

Countryside walking, gardening (and presumably soil based work party activities) are all ways of experiencing effective exposure to this microbe and its natural mood enhancing advantageous effects.

Another excellent reason to visit the reserve and partake in a variety of outdoor activities to include work party days and nature observation.

- David Winston

- February 2019

If you’re interested in getting involved in our practical conservation work and joining one of our morning work parties, come along and pop in for a chat with one of our team, or you can email us at sandwellvalley@rspb.org.uk. We’re always happy to welcome new volunteers, and we can promise that once the hard work is done you can sit down for a nice cuppa and a biscuit!

See here for more details about our work parties: https://www.rspb.org.uk/get-involved/volunteering-fundraising/volunteer/volunteer-opportunities/opportunities/7982/

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