Sunday, 12 February 2017

In the Heart of the City 12th February 2017


In well to do North Oxford, just before the Banbury Road runs into St Giles in the centre of the city one can turn off onto Parks Road which, as its name would suggest, is adjacent to The Oxford University Parks, often referred to as The Parks, a large open area of mature trees and grassland that runs down to an eastern boundary formed by the River Cherwell. 

Oxford is a small city but is blessed with at least three large areas of open space, The Oxford University Parks, Port Meadow and Iffley Meadows, each with its own natural attractions but being located within a city, all are very popular as places of general recreation.

The Parks were first created in 1864 and now consist of informal gardens, some large sports fields, an arboretum containing seven Giant Sequoias, and is home to Oxford University Cricket Club. As one would expect The Parks are well maintained and looked after by gardeners and groundsmen with wide paths circumventing  the whole area, and as such it is very popular with tourists, students and lecturers from the surrounding University Colleges, local residents and anyone else who cares to visit.



Today, even though it was a gloomy and miserable grey Sunday morning, The Parks was host to numerous joggers, ranging from single men pounding out the miles to groups of cheery ladies in various lycra colours chatting as they progressed sedately round the grounds. Dog walkers were much in evidence also, although thankfully bikes are banned so any potential collisions are just with the joggers or the occasional uncontrolled dog. It does happen! 

Another dire morning, weather wise, had me at a loss as what to do, so on a whim I decided to check out The Parks for a possible Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, as they have been seen and heard there in the past and certainly the mature trees look just right for them, especially with The Parks proximity to water in the form of the River Cherwell..

I managed to find a free parking space on one of the wide roads at the back of The Parks, and walked back the few hundred metres to the nearest entrance, passing the huge gothic houses either side of the road that are now worth millions of pounds and almost as expensive as any house in London

I entered The Parks by the North Gate and wandered down the long path but had no success with finding or hearing a woodpecker of any sort, just a couple of Nuthatches were calling from high up in one of the trees. Delicate Snowdrops, still in unopened white bud and  yellow Aconites with a frill of bright green under each flower, flourished in patches  under the trees and did their best to bring some cheer to what was a depressing morning. 


Aconites

Snowdrops
Undaunted I progressed down the path and followed it as it wound to the right to run parallel with the river. Just a  couple of Canada Geese, a few Mallard and some Black headed Gulls floated on the green opaque water hoping that someone would lob them some bread but they were out of luck.


Further along I came across a very pleasant surprise, a pair of Goosanders, idling on the river and showing no real alarm at the close proximity of so many people indulging in their various activities on the adjacent pathway. Even the dogs running loose seemed of no concern to them. I have often found this with Goosanders when they are on small areas of water such as rivers, which after all are their natural environment. On larger lakes and reservoirs  they seem more wild and circumspect.






I walked to the edge of the riverbank  and they showed just a little concern but not enough to prevent me taking some images in quite appalling light, as it was sleeting at the time.






To be able to see such beautiful birds virtually in the centre of Oxford or any city, swimming and feeding unconcernedly must be, well not unique but very unusual. The male is quite beautiful and on closer inspection his plumage reveals a range of subtle colouring. His head appears almost black but then from another angle is revealed as being a deep lustrous wine bottle green and the white on his breast and flanks has the most delicate suffusion of pink.



His bill is dark red, the colour of a Victoria plum with a formidable black hooked tip to it and the female's bill replicates this to a lesser extent. I watched as he preened and his open bill revealed the serrated saw like edges to his mandibles that allow him to seize fish underwater and give them the colloquial name of sawbills. In addition to fish they also eat molluscs, crustaceans, worms, insect larvae and amphibians such as frogs, newts and toads




The female is not nearly so gaudy as the male but still beautiful in her own fashion. A reddish brown head with a shaggy, stiff scruff sticking out behind contrast with pale greys of differing hues on her body.







They are not particularly rare and first bred in Scotland in 1871, in England in 1941 and since 1970 they have spread further across Northern England and Wales and now are spreading into southwest England. However they are only seen in the rest of England as migrants in the winter. The winter population in Britain is around 12,000 birds and the breeding population between 3100-3800 pairs. They have a taste for young salmon and trout and sadly are still illegally killed in parts of Britain because of this. At least here in Oxford they are safe.


I watched the two of them as they watched me, and when they deemed I got too close they did not fly away but slid gracefully underwater and surfaced twenty or so metres further downstream, but they liked this part of the river and were reluctant to leave or move further down the river and so would swim back past me.







I retreated from the riverbank and they settled once more, quietly floating under the further bank before separating and commencing fishing a few metres apart. I left them to it as the weather was becoming ever more gloomy and headed back to the car

I do hope this miserable weather will change for the better soon. It's really beginning to get me down but for now I will let the memory of the Goosanders keep my spirits up.


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