Tuesday 5 February 2019

Deep Frozen in Oxford University Parks 3rd February 2019

It was reasonably early on Sunday morning and the temperature gauge on my car read minus 7.5 degrees celsius as I  left my home in the Cotswolds to drive to Oxford University Parks. On arriving there at 8.30am, the gauge had not moved. It was cold, very cold and with the minus temperature had come an overnight coating of ice to freeze the already lying snow, transforming the landscape into a world of sparkling white reflecting the dazzling brilliance of the sun which was rising low in a sky turning to the purest cobalt blue.

It was my desire to get here early to avoid the inevitable build up of tourists, joggers and dog walkers that also utilise this incomparable resource situated almost in the heart of the City of Oxford. My main purpose was to look for a pair of Rose ringed Parakeets that have taken up residence in some tall trees near the adjacent River Cherwell and look like they may breed here this year.

I walked alongside the slow moving river, skirting a circle of yellow Winter Aconites, their heads bent low by the weight of heavy frost and awaiting the sun's rays to reach and resurrect them. The sluggish waters, part frozen, were still and a mirror both to the sky and the lattice work of branches of the overhanging tall trees  Even at this comparatively early hour for a Sunday I had company as enthusiastic dog walkers and joggers had already taken to the paths through the landscaped gardens. 

The River Cherwell with the University Parks on the left
A flotilla of Mallards, safely positioned in mid river followed a free running dog as it snuffled along the far bank, the frosted ground tingling the pads of the dog's feet, making it jump and twist in excitement. Ducks are inveterately curious about dogs and many a duck has been led to its demise by a man and a dog aware of this trait, luring the inquisitive ducks into a decoy to be despatched. Even to this day the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust use trained dogs to lure ducks into a decoy, thankfully now only to be caught and ringed and then released.

The Mallard drake's green heads turned from velvety black to an almost luminescent emerald as they caught the sun.They are so familiar to us that we become casual about their beauty but it is worth stopping just to admire and appreciate them every so often. Even the Mallards looked cold as they swam around in desultory groups, to seek shelter and perch on the submerged lower branches of bushes that swept down from the river bank.

Drake Mallard
I walked slowly onwards and came to the famous Rainbow Bridge, crossing it to the other side of the river to where there is rougher ground and grassy paddocks and followed a track running dead ahead, the ruts and footprints in the mud frozen hard and the bent reeds in the ditch beside, forming a haphazard puzzle of angles, held rigid in the grasp of frost and frozen water. Overlooking the track, the huge bare boughs of substantial trees stood in stark silhouette against the bright sky. The trees have recently been subject to the savagery of a chain saw, the pruning lacking any cosmetic design and being purely functional only adding to the sense of brutish amputation inflicted on the trees. 

The Rainbow Bridge

The trees on the right frequented by the parakeets, looking
northeast along the track away from The Rainbow Bridge

and towards Marston

The same trees looking southwest along the track and
 towards The Rainbow Bridge
So far I had heard or seen nothing of the Rose ringed Parakeets but a drumming Great Spotted Woodpecker sparked my interest, the sound coming from high in one of the trees further along the track and I walked towards the sound to try and find the bird. As I did I heard another sound, a querulous shriek, unmusical and harsh on the ear, thoroughly out of keeping with the other more melodic bird sounds about me. Normally such a sound would be an unwelcome intrusion but today was different. It was coming from none other than a Rose ringed Parakeet. I had found them! The parakeet called regularly, the sound a strident incision into the wintry stillness. I tracked the call and found a bright green male perched high in the penultimate tree, its bulbous, lustrous green head and rosebud red beak shining in the sun. A female, slightly duller and shorter of tail, was perched, more concealed and slightly lower, in a tangle of twigs and thin branches.

Male Rose ringed Parakeet
Opinion varies about these birds. There are those who regard them as an interloper and thoroughly out of harmony with our native birds while others, me included, find them an attractive addition to our fauna.What is without doubt is they are here to stay now and they are expanding their occupation of England. The county of Oxfordshire has had a very small resident population around Henley on Thames for some years and one or two have in the last few years been seen in various parts of the City of Oxford. Now this pair seem to be setting up home and have been seen prospecting likely looking nest holes in the large trees they were currently occupying.

After some minutes the male flew off towards Marston in customary rapid flight, shrieking loudly, but the female remained perched, apparently unperturbed by the male's sudden departure.

Female Rose ringed Parakeet
I left her and walked back towards the bridge. A pigeon sized bird flew in the sky above the tree tops with exaggerated, slow wing beats. It was dull greyish brown on its upperparts and barred below with a barred, spread tail. A female Sparrowhawk, it circled before heading further across the Parks towards the city.

Just before the bridge I passed through a gate to my right and walked the river's bank, my feet  crunching on hard frozen leaves and hoar frosted grass, passing hulking felled tree trunks capped with an icing of snow,. 

A small duck was dabbling under the far bank, its back to me. All I  could see was a creamy coloured undertail and grey flanks but that was enough to tell me  it was a male Teal. Not so usual here and probably it has been displaced from its usual haunts by the cold weather that has frozen parts of the river to ice. Here it had a patch of open water to dabble in and sift for food particles.

Drake Eurasian Teal
They are such pretty ducks, a compact composition of vermiculated grey complemented and contrasted by a band of bottle green feathers sweeping across each side of its rich chestnut coloured head. It noticed me looking at it and became instantly anxious and swam from my presence. I left so it could resume feeding. Further along a narrow track ran away to my right through another avenue of trees, dividing two rough fields, white with snow. Two birds were rummaging in some leaf litter, the leaves surprisingly still whole but withered brown and deep frozen into perpetuity. The birds were small thrushes, Redwings, a winter visitor from Scandinavia. They allowed me to approach closer than is normal, their innate wariness discarded due to their hunger and desire to find food. They are the most fragile of our winter visiting thrushes and extended cold periods must account for many but these two were still attentive enough to only allow me so close before departing. They too are beautiful. Superficially like our native Song Thrush but pleasingly more varied in their plumage with natty cream eyebrows across their head and a flush of blood orange on streaked flanks.

It had been a full hour and still the temperature was only one degree warmer. I departed to the drumming of a distant woodpecker and a shriek from the returning parakeet. 

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