On The Spot – The (not so) anti-social birder.

Despite the self-titled blog name, Chaz is not at all antisocial and I instantly like him. We have arranged to meet on this sunny Thursday morning at the end of March so he can take me on a tour of Clayhanger marshes, which is an area identified as being a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). I am keen to know more about this special place right on my door step and the life contained within it. Click clayhanger-marshes-walk-march-2016 (1) for a map of the route.

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My first lesson in birding is that I’m walking too fast. ‘Striding out with the dog’ style is not the order of the day here. Taking time, stopping and absorbing are the new skills I must acquire.

Second lesson. Listen. Now I think I am pretty nature savvy (I watch BBC Spring Watch and have a book by Chris Packham) but I have to REALLY strain my ears to filter out the sounds I’m listening for.

‘Hear that?’ Chaz darts the question at me. ‘Hmmmm. What?’ I can hear all sorts, including the cacophony of noise in my head – did I put the washing on? Should have put that load on the line. Shall I text the kids and ask if they will do it? Didn’t get chicken for tea out of the freezer! – eventually my whirring brain stops shouting and I begin to hear. It’s a loud song. A robin. I see him just feet away. ‘He looks a bit tatty. And fat,’ I comment to Chaz. Chaz explains that he is growing his breeding plumage and so he’s losing feathers as well as growing new ones. ‘He’s probably a youngster. This time last year he was most likely an egg.’

We walk through the ‘set aside’ field at the back of Clayhanger Park and Chaz explains more about listening. ‘Using just your eyes, you could spend hours looking in 10 bushes for a bird. If you listen, you can pick out the birds you recognise, find them if you can and then concentrate on the songs you are not familiar with. The sound will take you to the bird.’ Ah. Makes perfect sense.

The ‘set aside’ creates a buffer between the residential area and Clayhanger Marshes. At the end of this field we reach the bridge which crosses Ford Brook into the SSSI.

Clayhanger Marshes SSSI. Image by madwblog.

Clayhanger Marshes SSSI. Image by madwblog.

Chaz stops and explains why this area is so special and why it has SSSI status. The slag heap which is locally known as the ‘black hills’ washes pyrite into the ground when it rains. This makes the soil more acidic than the surrounding farm land and so plant seeds blown on the wind often settle here and grow where they wouldn’t usually. The land has clay underneath so the water sits on top, hence the marsh and this attracts birds using it as a stop off while migrating or spending the winter here before heading off in the spring. He has written an excellent piece on his own blog which is far more detailed and accurate than mine so, please, read it.

I’ve walked down here many times with the hound and seen swans, herons and ducks, but there is so much more! The first thing Chaz shows me through his scope is a pair of Oysters Catchers. These are birds I have only ever seen on the coast and I am astounded that they come AND BREED inland. Clearly it’s quite normal. But special for me.

The Mineral line. Image by madwblog.

The Mineral line. Image by madwblog.

We continue up the mineral line and see Coots, Moorhens, Teal, Shoveler and Gossander. Looking at them through Chaz’s scope they are all stunning. What we don’t see, but hear, is the Chiffchaff. The second call I have learnt and begin to recognise as we continue to walk. It’s quite distinctive and, for a birder, the first sign of spring. At the top of the mineral line, we turn left to go through the gate and across a stile to approach Ryders Mere. I hadn’t realised that this body of water has only been here for 20 years. That was only just before I moved to Clayhanger. Once farm land, the area was mined quite rapidly for coal by the open cast method. The coal exhausted, the area was landscaped and Ryders Mere was created. The largest of the two islands on the Mere is a Gull colony and most definitely the largest inland Chaz reckons. It’s noisy. Its breeding season and it’s all getting a bit heated out there. To me, Gulls are Gulls, but today I learn to recognise the Black-headed Gull.

Ryders Mere with Gull colony on island. Image by madwblog.

Ryders Mere with Gull colony on island. Image by madwblog.

As we round the southern edge of the Mere, we see more Shoveler and Gossander but my favourite I think is the Gadwall. The grey plumage is exquisite giving him the look of platinum. While I admire the Gadwall through the scope, Chaz jots down what he has seen. This recording is not just for his own sake, some of the birds we have seen are in decline and recording when and where they have been seen is vital. Chaz shares his findings with the ‘County Recorder’ and is added to a database.

At the south-western point of the Mere, we bear left and start towards Grange Farm. Chaz explains that he knows the farmer and that he is a thoroughly decent chap who is very enviromentally aware. Despite being one of the largest holdings in the area, the farmer sets aside strips of land and leaves hedge rows and trees lines in place for wildlife. As we cross the fields, we hear and see the Skylark. They dance and hover just above the ground. Vaughn Williams and George Meredith got it absolutely right when they were inspired by this bird.

Timberland Way. Grange farm. Image by madwblog.

Timberland Trail. Grange farm. Image by madwblog.

The Timberland Trail cuts across a horse field and we enter Coppice Woods also known as Grange Farm woods.

 Image by madwblog.

Image by madwblog. An enormous fungi which I can’t remember the name of.

Chaz is hoping for wood-loving birds here and indeed, we hear a Green Woodpecker which has the song of manic laughter. It reminds me of a Guiding song we used to sing about the Kookaburra. The ‘drumming’ sound you may hear when out and about in Clayhanger is the Great spotted woodpecker and although the Green Woodpecker drums, the Greater Spotted is much louder.

By now, my brain is fit to bursting. Chaz has taught me so much and I am so over-whelmed by what I have seen and heard that I cannot take any more in. But there is one last treat left.  At the very end of our walk, there they are, basking, chomping and hanging-out in the late morning sun. The red deer.

Red deer at the top of 'Old Clayhanger'. Image by madwblog.

Red deer at the top of ‘Old Clayhanger’. Image by madwblog.

I am so grateful to Chaz for letting me tag along on his rounds. I have enjoyed his company and learned so much about the place where I live. So what if we have ugly concrete barriers across one road? This makes up for it all. A thousand fold.


Chaz ‘does the rounds’ of Clayhanger Marshes three or four times weekly and updates his blog daily. Click here for his account of the day when madwblog joined him. 

Looking back across Clayhanger Marshes. Image by madwblog.

Looking back across Clayhanger Marshes. Image by madwblog.

More information about bird watching and supporting nature in your own back yard can be found on the RSPB website.