Saturday, 13 January 2007

A weighty problem

I treasure the reedbed that nestles into a corner of the nunnery lakes reserve. Home to a wealth of wildlife, I have helped to shape its character by periodically removing the invasive growth of willow scrub that threatens to dry it out and change its character. I have been sensitive to the fluctuations in water level that, over the years, have probably reduced its attractiveness to breeding reed warblers. It is an ecosystem in miniature and I relish the opportunity to envelope myself within it and to peer at the richness of tiny invertebrates that live amongst its stems. I have always felt that it looks at its best in winter, on cold still days of large skies and frosted reed heads. This winter, however, it looks somewhat worse for wear.

Large parts of the reedbed have been flattened, the stems of reeds broken and pushed down into the dark, viscous water. It is as if some giant of the African plains as been through, exorcising imagined demons on the vegetation around it. Has some great drama been played out here – something of Man’s doing? A closer examination provides some useful clues; there have been birds roosting here, their nutrient-rich droppings welded to stalks in such quantities that I cannot guess at the numbers of birds involved. In previous winters I have witnessed the dusk arrival of small numbers (dozens each rather than hundreds) of pied wagtails, reed buntings and starlings, all seeking the protection offered by the reedbed during the long winter nights. I suspect that one of these bird species may be responsible and, able to amuse myself elsewhere on the reserve for the short time that remains before the approaching dusk, I plan to return to discover the culprits.

With the light just beginning to fade, I find myself back near the reedbed. This time I am perched up on an area of breck that provides me with a commanding view across the reeds. Small parties of wagtails and starlings can be seen in the air above the reeds, arriving from all directions and travelling in from feeding opportunities elsewhere. It is the starlings that provide the spectacle, their numbers swelling as the natural light begins to drain from the sky and the glow from the distant town becomes a backdrop. Still the numbers of starlings grow – there are thousands in the air now, wheeling and twisting in unison like some swirl of dark ink in water. Then, at some unseen signal, the first birds drop into the reedbed, followed by the others until the whole flock is swallowed up – it’s great weight subduing the reeds and pushing them down. My mystery is solved.

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