Monday, 15 December 2014

Festive frolicking in the heather

Come up to the Common, and help us with some conservation work They said! You can take home a christmas tree They said! It''l be fun They said! 
... They were right!

Saturday morning dawned cold bright and heavy with frost. Every leaf, grass blade and rooftop was crusted with ice, or glinting in the sun. I arrived at the common at about 10am, mid morning. The sun was well risen, and the day had aired long enough for some of the frost to sparkle as it melted, and the thick mud to ooze underfoot. The brightness of the sun blocked my view to the east; slender trees danced in front of it, and the light burst through between their ranks of trunks. All was grey-green and brown, yet gilded by golden light. Except the gorse, squat bushes of which were growing resolutely along each side of the path, proffering its vicious spikes to the frost, each thorny crown cradling a mass of yellow flowers like distilled december sunshine. 
High in the birch trees, minute movements dashed across my vision, accompanied by high thin calls. an autumn flock of small birds, mostly tits and crests were feeding in the topmost branches. I recognised the bold black markings of a great tit, and several bouncing pinkish baubles paused just long enough to reveal themselves as an extended family group of long tailed tits. the smallest of all were the goldcrests. Like mobile leaves these miniature green-hued birds flitted and hovered, seeking the insets and spiders succumbing to the frost. One goldcrest dropped low in the trees, taking a moment out from foraging to plunge into the icy waters of a tree-root-puddle and clean his vital feathers. I watched him through my binoculars as he sat on a branch preening and drying off. His flame like orange flash on his crown, bright and glorious. The flock moved on in their continual roving travels, and I too continued my walks, in the opposite direction. 
An unusual sound stopped me in my tracks; a bird like chattering from the gorse, someone clearly wasn't happy with my presence. a shifting, a movement, an appearance. There sat on top of a gorse bush in perfect field-guide-picture pose, was a dartford warbler*. A gorgeous male bird, of uniform charcoal grey from beak tip to long tail, with a bib of deepest claret wine. This was my first really good view of this bird, one that I had only glimpsed before. A heathland specialist, the dartford warbler relies on gorse bushes to harbour their insect food during the winter, even under snow cover, but here we are at the northern reaches of their range, and populations often crash during hard winters. This sighting cheered me to good spirits for the rest of the day, and was boosted by the additional unexpected view of a glorious male bullfinch, plump pink plumage illuminated by the sun. 

My birding walk was just the start of things. I returned to the car park to join the local Wildlife Trust volunteers and gathering public. We made our way out onto the heathland, and gathered to listen to a talk and instructions. We were here to help clear pine and birch trees from a patch of the heath, essential management work to protect this rare habitat. Lowland heathland has developed through centuries of human activity, and if ignored trees would rapidly grow up and the area would become woodland in a natural process known as succession. The Wildlife Trust (and other organisations) are endeavouring to maintain a mosaic of different habitats to protect the specialist species that rely on each. 

Very soon, small seedling scot's pine trees and twiggy birch saplings were being cleared and stacked beside a glowing bonfire. Smoke drifted lazily, misting over Neolithic barrows, dropping low under the high pressure of the fine weather and rising phantom-like from the heather. However, not every pine was destined to burn on the fire and scent the smoke. Across local villages and towns, preparations for christmas are gathering pace as the festive season gets underway, and now the homes of many of Saturday's volunteers are also adorned with a proud tree of heathland heritage. 

*Please note that Dartford Warblers are a rare, and sensitive species, both in the breeding season, and through the winter when they are particularly vulnerable to cold weather. I have purposely refrained from giving an exact location, for this blog/species for this reason.

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