Bird-watching in Radley

An article from August’s Radley News by Paul Gamble

Late on a still July morning, one of the very hot days we recently enjoyed (or should that be endured?), I was sitting lazily by the Thames. Close by, a few upturned rowing boats rested on their stands. Rather dusty on top, a little grubby even, cobwebs between the hull and the rigging confirmed that they'd been there for a while. Nothing much seemed to be happening as the thermometer rose, whether in the natural world or in my switched off mind.

And then I saw it. The first time, I all but missed it. Just a small brown blur passing through my peripheral vision. Next time, more alert, I registered that it wasn't a large insect but, unquestionably, a small and feathery thing. The third time, my eyes now tuned in, I was prepared for it, ready to make sense of what had no doubt been going on for all the minutes I'd been staring out unthinkingly. Yes, it was what you've possibly already guessed: a parent wren, busily and regularly commuting with food for its young. Hungry chicks were waiting to be fed, in a nest hidden somewhere under one of those upturned boats. It was a great watch for the next fifteen minutes or so; non-stop feeding missions to gaping mouths in a home that was cleverly chosen for its shade from the sun's rays. Watching this was a great reminder of the adaptability of the most successful creatures. Those boats weren't there last year, and probably won't be in the next breeding season, but wrens will always find a nest somewhere.

I hinted about the resourcefulness of various species in last month's piece, when writing about birds that are new or restored in Oxfordshire and beyond. A degree of human assistance is often associated with this, planned or unplanned. In our own parish we have a sparkling example of how an environment can be given the chance to recover, and species provided with the space in which to prosper. No prizes for guessing that I'm referring to Radley Lakes, where humans are certainly playing their part in helping nature along.

The first thing to say about Radley Lakes is that it covers a much larger area than some imagine. Radley's parish boundary extends a long way into Abingdon, following the north side of the Thames and including a long stretch of the cycle path route. Pausing on this route recently at the newly installed display boards, the plans and hopes of the Radley Lakes Trust made for exciting reading. The diversity of the landscapes within the Trust's care is special — birds are not the only beneficiaries of this setting and their stewardship. An array of wildflowers lit up the grassland on that recent visit. Butterflies - skippers, meadow browns and peacocks, no doubt others too — fluttered and settled beside the cycle track. August too will have the buzzes, churrs and clicks of insects as its soundtrack, before all goes quiet again.

One statement on the display board particularly caught my attention: `You might also spy something rarer such as an otter, a bittern, or a glossy ibis.' `Wow!', I thought, remembering that I had seen evidence for otters beside our stretch of the Thames, but not the creature itself. And I'd only ever seen the two birds mentioned elsewhere in Oxfordshire. But why shouldn't I see them here one day, given the work that has been done to preserve the habitat of the Radley Lakes area — and assuming I keep my eyes peeled? On the same sign I read the acknowledgment given to Radley Parish Council for their support of the Radley Lakes Trust, and this took me back to Council meetings two decades ago. I remember David Buckle as Chair leading the way in expressing dreams for how this land at the south end of our parish might come alive again. How far-sighted he was!

Just as wrens used their energy to make a nest in a spot provided for them by the part-plan/part-neglect of humans, so perhaps a wandering bittern or glossy ibis may chance to arrive at a damp part of Radley Lakes and see it as a good place to pause, settle, or even linger. Who could blame them? It's got everything they need. So just imagine, if you keep your eyes open, you might be lucky enough to see one of these striking and rare visitors.

Paul Gamble