Life on the River Stour in Cradley

By Thomas Hartland Smith | January 29 2021

Life on the River Stour in Cradley

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    Welcome back,

    Wow my first month in post as the Urban Rivers Officer has flown by. It has really opened my eyes to the wonderful work that is happening around river restoration and conservation in the UK. Could it be at a more important time with so many news stories covering the extensive floods across the country?  #Greggs4good is funding the work of many projects across the UK and the Cradley Reedbed Project is just one of them. If you get the chance to look at the work this funding is enabling, it is really positive!

    With the effects of COVID-19 impacting on our delivery and people’s lives, it is great to see a huge resurgence of people, who are taking this time to reconnect with their green and blue spaces.

    If you are local to the Cradley site in the Black Country, or even if you live as far away as the Munro’s of Scotland,  I thought it may be interesting to introduce you to some of the species you are likely to see on the Cradley site. It truly is an urban oasis. Some of them you may be a little surprised about, as it is so easy to think nothing is living there.

    Upon first walking onto the site, I was amazed by how quickly you are immersed in wildlife, or that sense of nature. The previous second you’re walking on tarmac between homes and busy roads, and the next you’re alive with the smells of the rich, loamy soils and damp leaflitter under foot. Quickly you notice your ear is drawn toward the sounds of the river flowing alongside the path, and the depth of bird calls ringing from the woodland floor up into the canopies of the trees. I was surprised and giddy by the number of bird species that are using the site, and the way their calls travel so well. I assume this is due to it being a river valley, but it truly is immersive.

    At the time of publishing this blog, I have spotted and recorded 24 species of birds to date. Personally for me, the spotting of a Tree Creeper Certhia familiaris was a real delight. The tree creeper has such a characterful movement; hopping from one moss covered willow to the next; foraging for food as it ascends the trunks in spirals with its small downturned bill; hunting for insects hidden in the folds of the bark.

    With the River Stour flowing the full length of the site, the walk can be very meditative, strolling among the trees and along the banks. There are a number of bird species you are not commonly going to find in your “average” back garden. It is well worth a visit, just for this reason alone! Species such as Mallards Anas platyrhynchos, Grey Wagtail Motacilla cinerea, Moorhen Gallinula chloropus and the beautiful blue flash of the Kingfisher Alcedo atthis, are just some of the delights, you may be fortunate enough to glimpse.

    You are probably aware that species such as the tree creeper are not common in many gardens. The Jay Garrulus glandarius, Bullfinch Pyrrhula pyrrula or Great Spotted Woodpecker Dendrocopos major are also rare visitors. With Spring just around the corner, I shall definitely be listening out for the drumming of the woodpeckers, and the arrival of the first summer migrants, when I am on the site in the coming weeks.

    One species of bird which was I was not expecting to spot onsite, was the Redwing Turdus ilicus. Redwings are winter migrants and feed on the berry bearing trees and shrubs. They migrate to the UK, as our winters are milder and they can find food more readily. One of the features of the Cradley Reedbed Project, is going to be the community orchard. Windfall from fruit trees is a common food for species such as the redwing, Black Bird Turdus merula and Song Thrush Turdus philomelos.

    However if you are new to watching the birds in your garden or when your out and about, this is one of the best times of the year. Naturally the trees are still bare, and this really helps you to spot the birds. With Spring knocking on the door the birds are starting to sing more often. They do this for attracting mates and establishing territories. All of these points make identification easier.

    In addition to the birds already mentioned, the site is also home to many of the more common species, which you would find in back gardens. I was amazed to witness a charm of 50+ Goldfinches Carduelis carduelis flitting between the Ash Fraxinus excelsior trees and feeding on the ash keys (Ash keys are the seeds of this species of  tree). Although I am used to seeing the striking red face and flitter of gold in my back garden, I have never seen so many goldfinches in one place before. To think the biggest charm of goldfinches I have ever seen in all my years working in conservation, was on a site in the heart of the Black Country… in Cradley on the River Stour!

    The healthy population of small birds which can be found there, lends itself to support some of the apex predatory species such as Sparrowhawk Accipiter nisus and Common Buzzard Buteo buteo.  Whilst out on site the other week, I heard the ripple of alarm calls from the small birds. It alerted me to the presence of the sparrowhawk, as this amazing woodland hunter threaded itself effortlessly through the canopy.

    I have listed just a few of the bird species I have spotted so far at Cradley, in this urban wildlife corridor.

    It is not only birds that I have spotted. I have also seen Muntjac Muntiacus reevesi, a small stocky deer with short antlers. They were introduced into the UK in the early 20th century and are now widely spread across our urban environments. If you are visiting the site, you may spot the tracks of this elusive little deer, or you may even hear it as they are also known as the “barking deer”, due to their barking like call. The one I spotted truly startled me, as it leapt from the undergrowth. I had stood too close, for too long.

    I spotted Badger Meles meles tracks a plenty. When you walk the paths on the Cradley site take a second to look at the muddy paths. I commonly see badger tracks and ‘snuffles’ where they have rooted around for food. It’s exciting to know that this site must have many busy badgers roving around at night.

    When watching the sparrowhawk swoop through the canopy the other week, the silence that followed as the birds hunkered down and daren’t make a sound until the cost was clear, was electric. As the silence fell around me, I noticed a skulk of foxes Vulpes vulpes rustling through the brambles. No more than ten metres in front of me, there were three individuals. One of the foxes had lost part of its tail. If you do ever spot a fox onsite and it is missing part of its tail, it is likely to be this individual.

    The message to take away from all of this is “Wildlife is clearly thriving in this little oasis in Cradley”. If you spend just a little time visiting this site at different times of day, you are going to be surprised by what is around.

    Back in the office I have been making positive progress towards the aims of the Cradley Community Reedbed Project. The planning of the community orchard has led me to make connections with Fruit and Nut Village, a project based in Stirchley, Birmingham. They are custodians of historic varieties of fruit trees. The idea of bringing historic varieties of fruit trees back to the Cradley area has sparked my curiosity. This has led me to talks with members of the Cradley Links group.

    Cradley Links are a fantastic local history group with a wealth of knowledge. The group have helped me to identify some of the amazing features of the site and the local area. Believe it or not,  having talked with some their members, they have found a record which mentions a historic variety of pear from 1614, in the Cradley area.

    I have also had a number of onsite meetings with interested individuals, who have passion for the Cradley area, wildlife, or the River Stour. Following these meetings, I have managed to feed concerns back to the Environment Agency about misconnections and pollution. The pollution is currently freely flowing into the River Stour. There is shared interest from friends groups, charities and government agencies in supporting future projects to improve the water quality and the surrounding environment.

    Onsite meetings with the contractors who have won the tender for the reedbed, have gone smoothly. It is exciting to think that access to this site is going to be so much improved for the local community, and hopefully allow people to enjoy all of the above.

    Over the last week we have had some wonderful snow on the site. I have attached a few pictures for your enjoyment.

    Until next month,

     

    Tara-a-bit,

    Tom –Urban Rivers Officer.

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Thomas Hartland Smith