Wednesday, 19 January 2022
MANY swifts (Apus apus) have reappeared in our skies. It is only the beginning of May but these supremely agile birds always seem to remember where they first saw the light of day and return home to the very nest site where they emerged as little fledglings.
After an epic journey from sub-saharan Africa, these athletic visitors have come back to raise a new generation.
They seem to dance in the air like ultra-speedy dervishes. Our elegant summer migrants make Fred Astaire look positively pedestrian as they spin on a sixpence and twist and turn in pursuit of airborne insects. For me, their aerial screaming announces the beginning of summertime.
My cousin, who lives in Caversham, has had a pair nesting in his loft for years. An aperture under the eaves of his roof has been left open for their annual return — a beautiful gesture indeed.
Standing in Chambers Copse, which is to the east of Reading Golf Club, I wonder at the world that I study as it flutters above or sits patiently below. This is a very old remnant of the ancient and worked woodland that once covered South Oxfordshire and has somehow survived to this day.
Bluebells proliferate, as would be expected, and they are intermingled with greater stitchwort, yellow archangel, ground ivy, sedges and newly unfurling ferns.
The spring flowers are taking the opportunity to capitalise on the sun’s rays before the tree canopy deprives them of light.
It is a real pleasure to visit a place like this. It really should have the ultimate protection.
Walking along the public right of way indicated on my Ordnance Survey map (but strangely not on my friend Dave Kenny’s smartphone app), it could be easy to get lost as there is no clear signage but then it is not vast and a simple compass suffices to aid direction.
There are huge old hazels here. Once part of a managed coppice, they are gradually keeling over through sheer weight and age but it must be a little paradise for our threatened hazel dormice.
I’ll have to visit again to find out whether this precious little mammal inhabits this lovely place.
It is a peaceful day. Only the calls of jackdaws and the occasional sentence of a blackbird or chaffinch punctuate an otherwise silent wood.
Yew, hornbeam, field maple and cherry make up the majority of the woodland. Hawthorn decorates the copse’s edge with its sweet-smelling inflorescence. Common lime and oak stand in the interior like the last guard over this wonderful part of the world.
Dave and I have come in search of the strange but interesting flowers of the elusive toothwort, a parasite that primarily feeds on the roots of hazel. We are unable to find it in several of its old sites so we decide to move on.
We search with diligence and find plenty of other plants that are dead-cert indicators of ancient woodland. From grass to flower and tree, the story is there for all to see.
A shard of sunlight illuminates the beauty of wood melick, our trademark Chiltern woodland grass. Delicate and slender, it has a nearly supernatural glow at the moment.
A brief visit to a deep old highway that runs from Highdown Bottom towards Tanner’s Lane reveals some huge and ancient trees. Red goosefoot stands proud along this old thoroughfare that leads north.
Returning to the stables at Rosehill, I wave at my sister as she traverses some lush green pasture to attend to her pair of horses off in the distance. Unknowingly, she disturbs small insects that rise into the air. As she moves on, she is followed by hungry barn swallows (Hirundo rustica) that snap up the newly revealed picnic in her wake.
Birds sing their songs and maybe I’ll whistle but in my dreams I fly like a swift. If only it were true.
09 May 2019
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