Summer is here and the reserve is in full bloom! David Winston, one of our Work Party volunteers, has kindly shared the third part of his reflection journal with us as he documents his experiences during the late spring and early summer season at RSPB Sandwell. From helping with school visits to logging recent sightings, David gives brilliant insight into a day in the life of a reserve volunteer.

If you missed the first two parts of David’s journal, you can find them here.

REFLECTIVE JOURNAL: PART 3 - May/June 2019

SPRING SCHOOL VISITS

I was involved in assisting with the land minibeast class in the new meadow area for part of the day. The morning was damp and not conducive to flying insects, but the children had fun looking at animal life on tree trunks and branches, under logs and wood. I demonstrated sweep netting and the children were pleased to see a young grasshopper. I pointed out the flowers in bloom and also the hawthorn blossom.

The hawthorn or may-tree is the only native British plant to be named after the month in which it blooms. However, it is variable in its flowering time and is influenced by both late winter and spring temperatures. The blossom of the hawthorn is distinctive: white, dense and with a strange scent that was described by H. E. Bates, the author of The Darling Buds of May, as “the risen cream of all the milkiness of May-time."

On the following week I assisted with pond dipping. This proved to be enjoyable for all and the children benefited from it in a variety of ways. For some it was their first time observing and identifying both damselfly and dragonfly larvae: a source of delight. The highlight of the session was the discovery and observation of smooth newts.

Later they were taken to the garden area near the visitor centre to look at the range of wild flowers and pollinating insects prior to leaving seed at the robin feeding station, followed by a walk through the memorial garden. A great day and a wonderful example of how enjoyable and educational freshwater biology, wildflowers and trees can be for children and adults alike.

EARLY SUMMER SCHOOL VISITS

The day was dreary, grey, wet, and unseasonal. Disappointing for the first week of June.

Prior to the group arriving, a trip was made to collect leaf litter for an indoor minibeast exercise from near the hugging tree. On the return to the visitor centre a detour was made to look at the newly-created wildflower meadow. It was so good to see a range of flowering plants on it including yellow rattle and the beautiful cornflower.

Yellow rattle (also known as hay-rattle) is a semi-parasitic annual plant of meadow and pastureland, and is found throughout the country, most often on well-drained soils. It was included in the seed mix in an attempt to suppress vigorous growth of grasses to assist the wildflowers. It will be interesting to see how it develops within the meadow area.

The corn-flower, a personal favourite, has been regarded as an agricultural weed since the seventeenth century and for the last half century has become nationally scarce. The nature poet John Clare described its distribution in a corn-field as “large sheets troubling the cornfields with their destroying beauty”. A lot of hard work has gone into this exciting project over the autumn and winter by a number of work party volunteers and it was uplifting to see it in flower at last. Hopefully it will continue to develop, and more flower species will be in it next summer.

We returned to the visitor centre and waited for the arrival of the school group. The children arrived and divided into two groups: Land Minibeasts and Brilliant Birds. I was involved in assisting with the latter. Several birds were observed and identified on the various feeders prior to a visit to the bird hide. The window feeders were very useful here to show bullfinch and great tit.

En-route to the hide various bird songs and calls were heard including blackbird and robin and a listening exercise was carried out by the children. As we approached the hide a foxglove (a natural indicator of seasonal change when late spring turns to summer) complete with attendant bumble bee was pointed out. It was surprising to see the inherent fear of some of the children who associated the benign bee with a painful sting. This could be an interesting follow-up teaching exercise to dispel this myth and phobia amongst some children and encourage a greater appreciation of these important and attractive pollinating insects.

On arriving at the hide a variety of species were spotted including mute swan with young, little ringed plover, waterfowl, oystercatcher with young and seasonal hirundines. The latter included house martins and swallows hawking for insects low over the lake and drinking, providing excellent views. To just sit and observe them for a few minutes was truly relaxing.

Swallows are widely regarded in high esteem for a number of reasons not least for their twittering song and flight. Swallows and martins are the smallest species to actually utilise gliding in flight. To observe the tail streamers splayed as they flew close to the water surface was a pleasure to witness.

The children enjoyed the experience in the hide and ticked off what they had seen on their sheets. Before leaving for the visitor centre the group were particularly pleased to see a line of twelve Canada Geese in single file swim close to the hide.

WINDOW BIRD FEEDERS

The window bird feeders in the visitor centre are noticeably popular with a range of birds, especially bullfinch. The feeders provide a wonderful opportunity to observe these birds in close proximity and appreciate their attractiveness both in appearance and feeding behaviour.

The sightings on the feeders at the reserve encouraged me to get one and I've been pleased to observe coal, great and blue tits feeding from it to include food sharing between blue tit pairs and more recently, after an absence of a few weeks, a family of five which included three fledglings. A lovely sight with their lemon coloured streaks on their faces and tentative flight.

In conclusion, I hope the summer weather improves for people and wildlife alike and the reserve experiences a productive season in terms of breeding success and the establishment and maintenance of native species of plants.

Photographs by David Winston

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