Over the past year our morning work parties have been very busy planting and landscaping the Reflection Garden, battling through the winter weathers and now relishing in the warmer spring temperatures. David Winston, one of our most recent work party additions, has been keeping a reflective journal of his most memorable experiences around the reserve including the wildlife he has spotted and the things he has learnt. We're delighted to share Part 2 of his journey so far!

(If you missed David's first blog, you can read it here)

REFLECTIVE JOURNAL: PART 2 (February - March 2019)

REFLECTION GARDEN

This interesting and innovative project has had a variety of tasks carried out on it by a number of work party volunteers throughout the winter and early spring months. I was personally involved in transplanting both dog rose and comfrey to the area. Whilst clearing the ground prior to transplanting the dog rose, it was pleasing to see a robin visiting and looking for invertebrates. A charismatic, cheeky chap held in high esteem by many people.

In addition to the distinctive red breast, the robin has striking dark eyes which are proportionally larger than the human eye. Robins on the reserve are noted for their lack of timidity and feeding areas are located for them. The bittersweet song of the robin in autumn and winter is always pleasing to hear and adds enjoyment to the short, often grey days which seem apt for the melancholic tone. In spring the song is more varied and elaborate, but not as obvious due to the arrival of other seasonal songsters.

THE DOG ROSE

In addition to the transplanting of the Dog Rose in the Reflection Garden, three plants have also been relocated to the new wildflower meadow area to increase floristic species diversity and act as a useful food plant for numerous insect species. This native rose is a familiar and much appreciated flower and the most abundant and widespread of the fourteen native species of rose. The blooms are sweet-scented and range in colour from deep pink to white. In the folk-riddle 'The Five Brethren of the Rose', originating from medieval times, a useful way of identifying roses is given:

On a summer's day, in sultry weather,
Five brethren were born together.
Two had beards and two had none,
And the other had but half a one.

The 'brethren' are the five sepals of the dog rose, two of which are whiskered on both sides, two are smooth and the remainder has whiskers on only one side.

COMFREY

This family are variable and hybridise frequently. The common comfrey is a perennial with spear-shaped leaves. The flowers hang in bell-like clusters and are either pale cream or purplish in colour and is a native species commonly found by streams, damp roadsides and waste ground. Russian comfrey is more common and is found in similar habitats, and is a cross between common comfrey and rough comfrey. Its flowers are blue to purple when open. White comfrey was introduced from Russia and Turkey, and occurs in hedgerows and waste ground mostly in the south and east of England.

The vernacular used for all species include Knitbone and Nip-bone, and are used for treating bruises and sprains. Comfrey contains a substance called allantoin which facilitates connective tissue healing. Herbalists of the medieval age named the plant 'bone set' and the roots of the plant were dug up in the spring, and used to help broken bones heal in a similar way to plaster of Paris. A widespread modern use of comfrey is as a 'green manure' by growing it and digging the plants into the soil, or via the production of a liquid feed from the plants.

CONCLUSION

It was pleasing to see the late winter and spring flowers. The snowdrops and crocus in the Reflection Garden looked attractive together with the daffodils, lesser celandines and blackthorn blossom on other parts of the reserve. They proved to be colourful indicators of the slow, subtle change in season in the soft lemon light of the beautiful weather we had in late February and early March which was atypical for the time of year but appreciated by all.

OAK TREE SEASONAL STUDY

There is an Oak Tree on the RSPB Sandwell reserve, an aged individual reputed to be over four centuries old. For almost four thousand years Britain was swathed in 'mixed oak forest'. At the time of the Domesday Book in 1086 only 49% of settlements had woods, and it was the oak that had high priority. An important practical aspect of Domesday relates to 'pannage' in which permission was given to feed pigs in woodland with fallen tree fruit which was comprised mostly of acorns and beech nuts. The lord of the manor received payment or rent for granting this privilege An additional benefit for the landowner was that the pigs eating of the acorns removed tannic acid which is toxic to both cattle and horses. 

The word acorn is derived from aecern in Old English. This is related to acer, which suggests that the acorn was regarded as field food for porcines. This was subsequently changed to acorn.

Oak trees can produce acorns as early as five years of age although they need to be around forty years before producing significant amounts of seed concentrated in mast years, every two to three years.

Acorns are a vital food source for many mammal species including voles, squirrels, badgers and deer. A number of bird species also consumer acorns such as rooks, wood pigeon and jays, perhaps the most colourful, intelligent and reserved member of the corvid family. The jay is often seen and heard on the reserve. The call most frequently heard is an atonal harsh gating one, which accounts for its Welsh name which translates to 'shrieker of the wood'. The scientific specific name of the jay, Garrulus glandarius, literally means 'eating acorns'. They often cache acorns and thus are nature's very own acorn and hence oak tree dispersers.

The oak genus Quercus contains over five hundred species globally and robur and petraea are the two British oaks. The former is known as the pedunculate or common oak and is found in deeper moist soils typical of the Midlands. The latter species is the sessile oak and is located in the west and north of the country. The bark of an oak tree changes with time and becomes more rugged and fissured as it ages. The cracks are more pronounced than occurs on other tree species and provide shelter and habitat for numerous invertebrates which in turn are sought by a number of bird species as an important winter food source.

THE TREE IN WINTER

Trees devoid of leaves are interesting to look at when their shape and form are more pronounced. Some individual trees make attractive and photogenic subjects by providing interesting composition and structure whether they are on an exposed rugged hillside, pasture land, in woodland, on a reserve or adjacent to footpaths. It is interesting to observe the tree both from afar and close up to appreciate the diversity of habitat it provides and the bark structure.

Insects and spiders overwinter in the crevices of the bark and in twigs both as adults and as eggs. These in turn provide an essential food source in the hard winter months for various birds such as blue, great and coal tits, wrens and treecreepers.

The treecreeper forages mouse-like, scrutinising the tree bark carefully for food. In terms of anatomy the treecreeper is the only one of the common woodland birds to possess a bill that is both long enough and fine enough to probe into bark successfully to extract insect eggs and larvae.

Winter is a time of dormancy for the oak awaiting the life giving strength of longer day length and warmth of spring.

In conclusion, the saying “by hook or by crook” originates from the Middle Ages when villagers were permitted to take wood on the ground. Only fallen timber and dead wood could be removed for prized winter fuel only via a shepherd’s crook or weeding hook.

Birds Seen In the Tree In Winter
Carrion Crow, Magpie, Jay, Song Thrush, Woodpigeon

THE TREE IN SPRING

There are two dates for the start of spring; the meteorological one and the official one. The former is always March 1. However, astronomers determine spring in a different way, based on the Spring Equinox caused by the tilt of the Earth in its movement around the Sun. This date varies from year to year. For 2019 the first day of spring is March 20 and is usually three weeks later than the meteorological one as is the case this year.

The start of this season is deceptive as the weather can be winter-like for a few weeks at least before the warmth becomes noticeable.

The oak is usually one of the first indicators of the arrival of spring as it reveals a premature light green caused by the swelling of the bud. Oaks are “monoecious” and have both male and female flowers on the same individual tree. The flowers themselves, which emerge later in the spring, and leaf buds are an important food source for many animal species.

The dapper bullfinch is fond of the male flowers in particular and is regularly seen in different areas of the reserve including the bird feeding area, hedgerows and the new wildflower meadow area.

Birds Seen In the Tree
Carrion Crow, Magpies building a nest, Woodpigeon

FIRST SCHOOL VISIT

'CONNECTIONS TO NATURE'

The date of March 19 was a personally important one as it was my first experience as a Learning support assistant at Sandwell Valley.

The group of thirty children from Mary Magdalene Primary School arrived shortly after 10am. After a welcome and introduction from our Learning and Education Officer, the children were divided into two groups for the morning activities. These were the Brilliant Birds sessions based in the lakeside hide, where children identified some of the wetland birds to be found there. They also visited our garden bird feeding station where they spotted bullfinches, blue tits, dunnocks and many more. They each made bird feeders from apples and pine cones to take home.

For the former exercise the group was taken to the hide observing and listening en-route.

The children used binoculars to try and identify a variety of species using an illustrated check-list. Some proved adept at this while others seemed to let their imagination cloud their judgement somewhat.

On return to the visitor centre, the group was shown the old oak tree, known as the ‘Hugging Tree’, and given information about it and the importance of the oak for invertebrates, birds and mammals. In addition they looked at the carving of the fox and were delighted by it. Reynard is an obvious conservation champion it would seem.

After lunch the theme of study was the “Signs of Spring” where the children experienced the herb garden for olfactory skills and flowers, leaves and blossoms for their ability to identify plant species and discern shades of various colours. The collection of bird puppets proved popular as the children listened to the song of some of the birds they had seen and heard outside. It was a delight to hear the names of birds from their imagination, such as ‘gold tit’ and ‘chiffinch’.

The herb garden proved popular and one of the children thought one of the plants in the collection smelled of barbecue beef flavoured crisps. An interesting observation. One of the assistants commented on how they would like to make a herb garden for their own school use. The group performed well in identifying the various plant species on the cards and in matching up the correct colours from their “Colour Detectives” chart.

The final part of the day involved a walk to the quieter part of the reserve to include locating interesting fungi, a brief riverside walk and observing the robins and dunnocks in one of the feeding areas near the Reflection Garden.

The children returned to the visitor centre for a final review and further information prior to their departure. They appeared to enjoy the day and it was a genuinely pleasurable experience to assist with the educational activities by providing nature information, asking the children questions, answering their questions and listening to the various often humorous comments of some of the group members.

In conclusion, as mentioned in the previous blog, it is vital to engage with children for the future of nature conservation and hopefully this may have sparked an interest in the natural world and the importance of its protection for the long term benefit of mankind and nature.

- David Winston

- March 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.

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