When people refer to me as a birdwatcher I am sometimes tempted to reply that I’m really a bird-listener as, particularly in a woodland setting, I am generally aware of bird calls and song rather than plumage, and walking through the wood is like following an auditory trail of birdsong. Never was this truer than two days ago when, cycling through the reserve, I heard the slightly explosive “kip” of a crossbill. A second “kip” was heard, then silence. I knew roughly the direction from which the bird had called but, at a distance of perhaps 200 yards and with many trees between us, there was little hope of ever seeing it. Had I not heard the two monosyllabic calls I would never even have suspected its presence. I say “its” as there was no way of knowing if there was more than one, though crossbills are generally sociable birds, so the likelihood is that lurking in the nearby pines, feeding on the cones, was a small party of these intriguing finches. In the past I used to encounter them rather more frequently, and they have even nested in the wood at least once, but these days, as more of the mature conifers are felled or blow down in storms, there is far less to entice them into the area. Their curious bills, crossing over at the tips, make them uniquely adapted to prising apart the roof-like tiles of conifer cones in order to extract the seeds with their tongues.
In a sad sign of the times, a spate of car break-ins has forced the warden to install CCTV at the reserve car park. This brought to mind the police posters produced many years ago which showed a magpie in the act of making off with some jewellery. And then the next day I saw a magpie in the middle of the wood; nothing so remarkable about that, except that they are generally birds of open spaces, shunning large woods. As you will doubtless be aware, the magpie is one bird that has increased in recent years, much to the despair of many birdwatchers distressed at the sight of the birds systematically working their way along garden hedges, pulling out eggs and chicks from any nests they encounter. When I came to Blean in 1982 it was most unusual to see a magpie on the reserve, but from the late 1980s and into the 1990s sightings became commonplace, even in the centre, up to a mile from the woodland edge. More recently the birds seem to have suffered a decline, to the point where last week’s sighting was noteworthy.
If you’ve been along the stone tracks within the wood this winter you may have come across some large stacks of cordwood – logs about six feet long and a few inches in diameter generated by the winter’s coppicing programme. Chestnut, birch, hornbeam and oak are cut every year, but whereas in the past this was to provide material for fencing, charcoal and firewood, nowadays the main objective is to create open areas for flowers and insects, along with bushy young regrowth to benefit a range of scrub-loving birds, and the logs are now a by-product of our management work. Some of the wood is stacked and left to rot down slowly, providing habitat for myriad invertebrates, and a secure nesting site for a variety of birds, but the surplus can now be sold as firewood, demand for which has soared in recent years with the increasing popularity of woodburning stoves, so generating useful funds for conservation. These stoves have the benefit of using a recyclable form of carbon, so do not add greatly to the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, although the chainsaw that cuts up the wood and the truck that delivers it all use fossil fuels. There is also now some concern that the stoves release harmful quantities of micro-particulates that are harmful to health, so it seems there is no such thing as truly green energy generators – wind turbines kill birds and consume huge quantities of steel and concrete, while the manufacture of solar panels uses up scarce minerals and commercial solar energy schemes put valuable farmland out of production.