Feeding Time

It’s that time of year again when each walk around the wetlands across from my home has my pockets bulging with food for the birds and red squirrels: seeds, nuts and fruit, meal worms and dried duck food pellets, plus a couple of coconut halves filled with suet and other tasty bits. We have a couple of trees that we hang these upon in Borthwood Lynch, swapping them for fresh ones every week. We also take fat balls and hang them upon the big oak in our little grove and place food in the hide at Alverstone Mead Nature Reserve.

At the hide today there were flurries of blue tit, great tit and chaffinch around the hanging feeders and several red squirrels, their bright red coats now dulled to a winter brown. The squirrels are much braver here than at most other places on the Island; the rewards of food have taught them that the risk of getting close to one or two humans is worth it. Amongst the goodies on the feeding shelf were almonds in their shells. These proved to be a real favourite. The squirrels would agitatedly sniff out the almonds and then scamper off with them. We watched one squirrel secrete almonds between the logged fencing of the high wooden walkway that leads into the hide, only to gallop down the walkway, past our feet, up onto the ledges to claim yet more. They were in a playful mood, chasing each other along the roof and performing their wonderful acrobatic leaps from hide to tree, spiralling at high speed around the trunks.

A large buzzard glided out across the water meadows scattering into flight the black-headed gulls that were sat, one each to a post, along the fences that edge the fields next to the river. The reeds were brown and had collapsed into boggy heaps but the rushes were a vibrant green, their spiky tufts coverings the wet ground that stretches out beyond Borthwood Lynch. It is a beautiful place and these days a very rare habitat that needs to be protected. A great deal of work is going into managing the wetlands at Alverstone Mead, ensuring that this precious and abundant habitat continues to flourish.

Walking back along the old railway path, the flooded meadows reflected the sky’s darkening and the moon – slowly swelling to fullness – brightened and sharpened as the sun began to set. All this incredible beauty feeds and nourishes me; I am tempted to want to squirrel it away in some place where I can keep it safe and unchanged but I know that this is not possible or even desirable. I have watched this landscape over the changing seasons now for almost three years – it never stays still, although the joy it gives me is constant. I guess this is a lesson in itself that despite our coming to terms with the inevitable changes of our lives, joy and nourishment are always there to be discovered. There is a balance to be kept between the preserving and shedding; nature knows this well and is an expert; I on the other hand am still learning.

The Christmas Blue Tits and the New Year Thrush

On Christmas day afternoon, Laurie, Dad and I took a walk across the Wetlands adjacent to my home. The Yar River springs to the surface in Niton to the south, winding down through the valley, the wetlands spreading out from its course, until it meets the sea at Bembridge Haven in the east. The Yar river valley was once home to the Sandown to Newport railway line. The line has long closed but the track is now a cycle path, passing through the beautiful water meadows, flanked by the downs to the north and south. Many of the old railway lines that networked the Island have found a second life as cycle and foot paths. They are wonderful places for wildlife and humans alike.


Between Sandown and the small hamlet of Alverstone – just off the old railway path- is the nature reserve of Alverstone Mead. Here, at the edge of the woods – overlooking the water meadows and the downs – is a large wooden hide on stilts. This wonderful place is run by volunteers. I have spent many happy moments here, witness not only to the many small birds and red squirrels that regularly feed here (it is one of the best places on the Island to view these elusive creatures), but also to woodpeckers (green and great spotted), grey herons, jays, kestrels, barn owls, foxes, water rats, my beloved buzzards and an assortment of other wetland and woodland residents.


On Christmas day, the place was alive with small birds – mainly tits and finches – one hungry, nervous squirrel; an equally nervous jay; a couple of female pheasants and a water rat, repeatedly exiting from his hole in the muddy bank, swimming across the narrow channel at the base of the hide, and then scampering back across the little wooden bridge, returning to his home.


What delighted me the most was the sheer number of blue tits. These tiny, agile little birds were covering a small bush beneath one of the hanging feeders. Plumped up with the cold, they were positioned like blue, feathery baubles on a Christmas tree. They each seemed to politely wait their turn, accessing the feeder one by one, until suddenly, with much chattering and impressive aerial control, they swarmed the feeder all at once.


I don’t think I am ever as happy as when I am witnessing such moments as these. I find that the more I look at the natural world around me, the more deeply I feel engaged with life and myself. However, I am also reminded that these creatures exist not only to please me, that they too have their purpose and their struggles.


At New Year, a song thrush entered our garden. This was a startling happening as our garden is notoriously absent of birds. Although I have planted and worked hard to attrack wildlife, it is a small space, surrounded by high fences and another house wall, other than our own; sadly, few people on the estate garden, and so the green highways for the movement of wild life are lacking. There are many cats, some of which use our garden as a through way. Much as I adore them, they make it difficult for birds to feel confident to enter.


The thrush arrived like a New Year’s message, and I was thrilled to see it. It landed on our washing line, our neighbour’s cat, rather ineffectively crawling along on its belly in ambush beneath. The bird easily outwitted him and I merely assumed that this unexpected visit was a wonderful aberration.


The next day, at the same time, the thrush returned. My initial delight quickly turned to anxiety; there I was feeling blessed to watch this beautiful, and increasingly rare, bird from my window, forgetting that this creature exists in its own right. It then began to dawn on me that its visits might have been triggered by desperation: the extreme cold often leads many birds to starve, their food sources in short supply. If such were true, then the joy I felt at seeing this bird in my garden would be an extremely hollow one.


I became like a women possessed, and with the help of Laurie and Dad, spent the afternoon purchasing and constructing a cat proof bird feeding station. Thrushes are ground feeders – nervous about making the bird vulnerable to local cats, I had chosen a feeder with a flat tray attached, hoping that the thrush might take advantage, safely positioned high above any sharp, furry paws.


After my dad and I finally got the feeder positioned and all the food hung and ready, we left it to its own devices and visited the hide at Alverstone to leave some food for the squirrels and the birds there, feeding the ducks on the way back too.


Today I awoke to the sound of flapping wings. To my great excitement, the tray of sunflower hearts has evidence of someone having feasted, and I sighted not one but two thrushes and a pied wagtail this afternoon on our fences. I hope that the food can help in some way to them surviving this bitter cold. Being a witness to the world about us is a joyful and sometimes painful thing, but life is all the more enriched when we can in some way interact with it too, giving a little of ourselves in the process. The rewards feel great indeed!