Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Walk 29: Duckling Dramas - Steanbridge Estate (revisit)

After the rain and chill of the beginning of this month, this is more like May should be - a bright, sunny, soon-to-be-hot morning.  I'm revisiting the section of stream that runs through the grounds of Steanbridge House, first visited in July last year.

What's noticeable this morning is how after the earlier rain, everything has grown like topsy.  Everything below tree height is already looking lush, and summery, through some of the trees are not yet completely in leaf.  I'm here to see how different this stretch of brook looks in spring, rather than summer, but in fact I suspect it's going to look remarkably similar, because of this recent spurt of (under)growth.

What is different is the size of the ducklings on the pond.  Last year it was all teenage ducklings, beginning to assume duck-like shapes, this year we've got a mix of older ones and recent balls of fluff.  At first sight of me, the worldly-wise teenagers come dashing across the water, demanding to be fed.

Where the stream goes into Steanbridge House land, there is a bit of an obstruction and a bottleneck, creating a small, fast-flowing rill or race, heading in the direction of Steanbridge House.  As I approach, two of the ball-of-fluff variety of ducklings are swept over it.  Reaching the quieter water below, they immediately start paddling like crazy to get back to the pond, where their mum is calling frantically, but I wonder if they are going to make it, because they are very small and the race is very fast. They struggle in the rush of water, peeting desperately, and I consider trying to help, but can't reach them because of the undergrowth.  Eventually they make it, but now they have to get up the downflow of the stream on the other side of the bridge that carries the footpath, which is even harder work for small paddlers.  Sensibly, they head along the side of the stream where the current is less, and after a few anxious moments I catch a glimpse of them on the other side, heading back to mum (I hope).  So much drama, so early in the morning.

Relieved, I cross the stile and follow the stream into Steanbridge House land.  The grass in the field is knee-high, and on the banks of the stream the nettles are king, but there are also lots of buttercups, red campion, and Large White butterflies. I still feel this could be a place for watervoles, with its steeper banks and deeper, more managed stream. A buzzard is circling overhead, just where I saw one last year, so this is presumably a good buzzard hunting-ground.  No kingfishers today, though.  The stream looks cloudy, or perhaps it's only the angle of the sun that makes it hard to see into the water; something comes up to the surface with a big 'gloop', but I can't see what it is.

The field I'm walking along the edge has large contrasting patches of ordinary green grass and a rough, brown, reedy variety, giving it a piebald look, leavened with a sprinkling of buttercups.  The lake is busy with ducks of various kinds, though not, I think, as many as I saw last time, and there are ducks pottering around on the lawn in front of the house.  A coot is paddling purposefully across the lake towards me with a bit of reed in her beak, disappearing into the reeds by the edge, from which little quacky noises emerge, suggesting a nest. Swallows are swooping low across the water - they've been back for a couple of weeks now.

I see that the meadow on the other side of the house has already been cut, ready for the village Jubilee and Olympics event in 10 days' time.  Further along the lake, I'm hailed by Nigel, one of the ground workers on the estate, who claims to have thought I must be a poacher because I'm wearing a poacher's jacket, though I reckon poachers don't usually sport cameras and sketchbooks and wander in during daylight hours, do they?  Nigel says you'd be surprised, and they do get poachers regularly, though mainly teenage lads.  I straighten him out about my reason for being here and he waxes informative.  He remembers seeing watervoles on the lake when he was younger, though not recently, and kingfishers last year, but it's a bit early for them just now.  He comments on how fast the grass has grown this year, with all the wet - some of our local farmers are making hay already, which is unknown before June.  Apparently the meadow was cut yesterday, and afterwards Nigel saw the buzzards come swooping down, taking advantage of the short grass to catch field voles and other small mammals.  Now, there are ducks in the field, relaxing in the cut grass.  According to Nigel, there's a roe deer and her fawn who come down into the field, and he also tells me to look out for a massive rainbow trout which hangs out in the bit of stream below the outflow of the lake.

Further down the lake, the lack of ducks at the top is explained; most of the mallards are down this end today.  The glorious lone oak tree on the far bank is wearing a very fine dusting of spring green, last of the nearby trees to come into leaf.  Just here is a break in the reeds fringing the lake, a flattened section of grass with a sprinkling of white feathers, which must be where the lone swan (and he really is the only one, according to Nigel) hangs out.

Down by the outflow of the lake a few yellow iris are in bloom.  There's no sign of the monster trout, but there are a few bubbles rising by the edge, so maybe he's lurking under the concrete lip.

I leave the smart, esate-ish part and follow the stream down into the woodlands below, where the undergrowth closes in again and the air is full of dancing insects and an Orange Tip butterfly.  What is it that Orange Tip butterflies actually do?  This one is flitting around but never settling on any flowers, so either it's very picky or it's not looking for nectar.  Aha - here's another OTB, so maybe... I wait to see if they're going to hook up, but no.

By the 'bridge to nowhere' (the iron hump bridge that crosses the stream only to run almost immediately into a fence) I pause to look and listen.  I can hear a buzzard calling overhead, and as I step onto the bridge, a large bird takes off from the top of a nearby tree.  Which gives me goose-bumps because exactly the same thing happened last time I was here, and very close to this spot.  So is this the same buzzard pair, returning to a regular nest site?  I  can also hear a chiffchaff, and I now know what they look like, having finally managed to spot one the other day at Furners Farm, except that what they look like is not very much, to be honest.  If ever there was an LBJ, the chiffchaff is it.  Well, Little Buff Job, maybe.  Are those bluetits alarming in the tree next door?  I play the bluetit alarm call from my phone bird app, which causes the real ones to alarm even more vigorously.  QED, I think, though maybe not very kind of me.  I take myself off in case they have a nest they want to get to.

Whose path is this, running in the narrow strip between fence and stream - badger?  Too overgrown here for deer, I think.  Why walk on this side at all, rather than on the nice open path on the other side?  Perhaps 'open' is the problem, for an animal.  The sound of a helicopter overhead reminds me that it's Olympic Torch Day in Stroud.  It strikes me how deeply irrelevant the Torch is to, for example, the bumble bee prospecting in the wild garlic in front of me, or indeed every other species on the planet except us.

Down here, amongst clumps of hazels, the stream meanders seriously, real snake-bends, and is very much clearer, though I can't spot anything in it.  Hovering over it, however, is one of those flies which looks like a small brown teddy bear with a very long proboscis, sword-like, and swept-back wings.  It looks remarkably dangerous but is (I think) quite harmless. I give it a wide berth in case I'm wrong about that.

Towards the end of the Steanbridge land, the track emerges from the woodlands, which retreat up onto the steep bank on my right, and the nettles close in, making access to the stream difficult.  By following an animal path (what would I do without them?) I come to the old leat, if that's what it is, the steep-banked channel that runs parallel with the stream and rejoins it close to the boundary.  This time, the banks of the leat are deep in wild garlic.  Beyond it is a chunk of wall and a trio of trees which, from my recent revisit to church field, I now recognise as being possibly part of the old silk mill.  And that would make sense, if this was all part of the mill water structure.

For interest, I follow another animal path away from the wall and into the woodland on the bank, above the leat.  It becomes quite a highway, and there are some different sorts of tres up here, including beech, a few evergreens and lots of holly, all of which are rare around the stream.  There are some very beautiful and large beech trees, striking in their spring green, so I wonder if this is another scrap of ancient woodland. Three deer spring up from the bank at my approach, and skitter away, pausing to look back at me as if they can't quite believe their eyes.

Lone oak tree
The woodland path leads me back in sight of the lake and I drop down to it again in order to spend some time trying to draw the big oak.  An excercise in simplifying complexity, which isn't my strong point.  Why, I wonder, when there are all these ducks on the lake, are there no ducklings?

A narrow escape for ducklings
The answer to this arrives rather dramatically.  As I pass the house, I hear Nigel calling; he's waving at something in the stream just above the lake, which turns out to be a duck with five or six very small ducklings.  As we admire them, the lone swan comes rushing up the lake in full battle order.  "Oh no!" cries Nigel, "It'll have them all" and grabbing a handy hoe, attempts to fend off the swan.  The swan sheers off, the ducklings scatter in all directions and the mother duck flaps up onto the bank.  Now she can't see her brood, or, apparently, hear their frantic peetings, perhaps because of the sound of the little waterfall. Meanwhile the swan returns to the attack and Nigel fends it off with the hoe.  Mother duck is now moving up the lake, heading for the swan, and Nigel worries that she's lost the ducklings.  But what she's actually doing is bravely trying to lead the swan away, succeeding in decoying it up to the further end.  She then flies back, but arrives too far away, well up the stream above the waterfall.  The ducklings are still below the fall, paddling to and fro and yelling for mum.  Nigel tries to shoo her back in the right direction, but the swan is coming back fast and he has to rush back to fend it off again.  The situation looks desperate, but at last mother duck spots the ducklings and succeeds in getting them up onto the bank.  But then she appears to be leading them back towards the lake...  The swan, it seems, is very territorial and goes for anything smallish on the lake.  So that's why there are no ducklings.  Who'd have thought this peaceful lake was actually an oppressed land under the heel (or web) of a violent despot?

Can't bear to see any further drama, so in cowardly fashion I take myself off home.

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