The planned Constant Effort Site bird ringing at Ashleworth Ham (which involves 12 visits at regular intervals through the summer, with the same number of mist nets set up at the same sites, over the same period of time) had to be called off, because the wind hadn’t read the weather forecast, and was much stronger than predicted; you can’t use mist nets effectively if there is any wind at all, as the nets belly out like galleon sails and birds simply bounce off them. But having risen well before dawn, it seemed a shame to miss the opportunity to review the situation in the hay meadows between the GWT reserve and the Severn, particularly as no hay has been cut so far, nor are any cattle grazing yet.
There is surprising floral diversity between one hay meadow and another: some have never been ploughed and exhibit a wide variety of hay meadow flowers; others were ploughed up (often in the Second World War, or more recently for maize) and even now show a much impoverished flora; some have in the past been agriculturally “improved” and/or subjected to herbicide treatment, often to control docks and other “weeds”, (though many are now under conservation management by the farmers themselves, so that the slow improvement should continue); still others hold water much longer and tend to be invaded by grasses like Tufted Hair Grass (the local name “Bullpate” illustrates the thick tussocky base that farmers hate so much because it’s so hard to uproot) or Reed Canary Grass, that rapidly invades wet open spaces and is no more popular; some fields were still very wet, with some standing water. The best traditional hay meadows had lost the pink flush of Cuckoo Flower, that was so obvious and attractive a few weeks ago, and was now replaced by a more orange tinge from the Sorrel that has developed in recent weeks; many of these fields also had good showings of the grass Meadow Foxtail and, here and there, the occasional plant of Water Dropwort: I think that at this earlyish stage the latter were all Sulphurworts, but this will need to be checked by better botanists than me. Many of the fields had good stands of Meadowsweet and Great Burnet, two plants which seem to re-establish themselves quite quickly in these meadows.
Birdwise, the morning began well, with three excited Cuckoos chasing one another and giving all three calls: the usual song, the gurgling call they sing in June, and a third guttural croak; we still don’t know which species they parasite locally, as there simply aren’t enough locally breeding Reed Warblers or Meadow Pipits; maybe Dunnock or Robin?? For breeding waders it was a disappointment however: no sign of Lapwings or Redshanks, no Oystercatchers (though a Song Thrush was doing a passable imitation of the call); only one calling Curlew was heard, though at this time of year, when they probably have small young on the ground, they often go very quiet. Among other hay meadow species, one might have hoped for Quail or Yellow Wagtail early in the morning in June, but neither showed itself.
Great Spotted Woodpeckers were present, many of them quite noisy, as they no doubt have young birds in holes in the oaks and willows.
As for songbirds, the ringing operations suggest a decline in Sedge Warblers on the reserve itself this year: in all the hedges and rough grassland, only three singing males were found; on the other hand male Whitethroats were singing everywhere, ten at least, often with an aerial song-flight thrown in, and many were churring as though they might have young; one of the other key songsters of the area, the Redstart, was in evidence, with at least three singing males in ancient pollarded willows outside the reserve. Sadly, there was no sign of singing Grasshopper Warblers, after a bumper year last year, nor of Reed Warblers, which in the absence of reeds sometimes sing from withies; but plenty of Willow Warblers were singing, as well as the odd Chiffchaff and Blackcap in the taller hedgerow trees. And of course, many Skylarks singing strongly overhead, and fair (though not large) numbers of singing Reed Buntings, with their ridiculous grandiloquent three note song. Maybe the constant wet conditions throughout last summer affected both Reed Buntings and Sedge Warblers last year, preventing them from raising clutches?