With the good old Jet Stream bouncing up and down the Lines of Latitude like a yo-yo, the ages-old tussle between the forces of Winter and Spring is still very much in-train. It would be the height of folly to hope that no more cold snaps will occur before the faint zephyrs of Spring take on the mantle of the Arctic winds of late. But look and listen carefully and the precursors to the warmer climes are all around us, even in the depths of the ‘dead month’ of February.
Earlier this week I sauntered up the steps onto the old railway embankment at the western end of Craig Road. Much decaying undergrowth still tangles below the gaunt, skeletal frames of the trees and shrubs which line the old track here; ideal foraging territory for blackbirds seeking fallen berries or invertebrates.
It’s up in the branches that Spring is springing under several guises. A few patches of gorse flowers glow in the gloom, but it’s the emerging flowers of the trees that are the harbinger of more clement times. Look for a variety of catkins on several species of trees. The easiest to identify is silver birch – the bark a jigsaw of silvery plates bordered by black/brown edges. As you brush past, look for the small, dark, upward-pointing hard catkins which are the female flower; nearby will be the longer, clunkier male catkins, hanging down like red-dotted lambs tails. Perhaps more familiar are the yellowy-fawn catkins of the hazel tree; again it’s the male ones that are the showy part of the partnership; the female flowers are simply tiny red eruptions on branches. And it’s only a matter of time before the familiar pussy willow blooms in abundance from the waterside goat willow trees.
Maybe it’s breathing in the heady tree pollen that enlivens the wild birds after a season of hard-fought lethargy over the trials of Winter. The trees were alive with lots of our favourite LBJ’s (little brown jobs…) securing territory for the new year. Great and blue tits chased – and were chased by – chaffinches and bullfinches, egged on by a few long-tailed tits, perhaps my favourite LBJ of all. Aloof and complaining, a wren scolded from his perch low in an elder tree. A few bird boxes remain high up in a couple of places; one entrance hole has been greatly enlarged, possibly by a greater spotted woodpecker seeking a meal for his family last year – they’re not averse to taking hatchlings from nests.
A diversion down to the pond beneath the line of high-tension cables offered no signs, yet, of any early frog or toad spawn (frogspawn is laid in large clumps, toad spawn in very long strands), but did give a glimpse of a pretty big fox padding away from its drinking spot.
Further along, close to the newly re-invigorated (by volunteers from HMVCG and friends) sidings orchard, a small flock of maybe a dozen fieldfares were hoovering up a few remaining crab-apples littering the ground near the rotting wooden sculptures of apples. A wintertime visitor from Scandinavia and northern Europe, this relative of our common thrush will be heading home again over the next month or so to their breeding grounds in the sub-Arctic tundra.
Heading downstream above the Mersey, evidence of the winter’s floods (so far…) is a distinct accumulation of new detritus in the overhanging trees (particularly sheets of white plastic) and a series of sandy banks washed clean and clear. Loads of doggy footprints here, plus a few coot or moorhen prints in the wet sand. On the stone-and-brick abutments of the old railway bridge next to the sewage works, no less than 3 herons stood hunched; grey-guards on high perches with viewing rights of the waters below. A couple of buzzards wheeled overhead; whilst a train of waste-filled wagons clunked along the goods line just behind, flushing up umpteen pigeons, gulls and magpies. Passing the weir, a few minutes were passed watching two anglers ledgering worms into the depths immediately above the curving waterfall here. No action for them, or for another heron paddling the edge of the far bank.
Along to the small woodland area some distance upstream of the island near Burnage Rugby Club, where ramsons (wild garlic) are already thrusting tufts of their green leaves skywards, evidenced by a distinct aroma of garlic here. It’ll be a few weeks yet before their pretty white flowers glisten on the banking, closely followed by the bluebells that, one hopes, have survived the disturbances caused by the upgrading of the Trans Pennine Trail here. Just above the island was a group of goosanders; the white plumaged males with their black stripe and dark green head very striking. They’re resident here for much of the year now, though I’ve yet to hear of any nesting in the area; they nest mostly in tree holes and hollows, of which there are loads in the huge alders and willows along the river banks.
The long plod past the rugby club and the line of poplars offered-up a few mallards and Canada Geese, plus a lone cormorant threading upstream high above the river, before my exit strategy took me away from our ever-interesting stretch of the Mersey at Cheadle Old Bridge to that other item of fascinating local heritage, The Gateway.
Treat yourself to a short, easy ramble along the old railway and alongside the river and allow some extra time to acclimatise to the remarkable range of wildlife with which we share this suburban countryside. It’s a rare day indeed when there’s nothing to see. In these dark, dreary days of late winter there’s more that you’d ever expect given a stroke of luck and the willingness to spend a little time in the elements. And it won’t be too long before we’re commenting on the large number of midges spoiling a gentle wander!