I’m standing at the gateway to a rough field, docks and thistles emerging amongst the uneven grass and the ground churned into lumps by cattle. I’m here to do my regular bird survey and, as I shuffle bits of paper into order on my clipboard, I can hear my first bird of the day: a robin singing its nostalgic autumn song.
This is Chimney Meadows nature reserve in Oxfordshire, owned and managed by BBOWT. My walk will take me around an island, bounded on one side by the meandering River Thames and on the other by a straight cut that allows navigation.
In summer, these fields are full of colour, dancing with damselflies and butterflies, and cold morning dew slips off the grass. In winter, rainwater floods down the Thames, inundating the island and making my survey visits impossible.
The nature reserve is open to the public, but I have the privilege of walking a route that others cannot take. This means I twist along the overgrown banks of the meanders; where a barn owl once floated across the undergrowth, and where I came across an otter which dived hurriedly as I appeared out of the fog.
I walk into a poplar plantation where the trees hold the grey morning light and rattle in the breeze, and where I saw grey wagtails, their tails bouncing jauntily, dabbling for insects on the ford.
From here, I criss-cross the meadows and follow hedgerows, hearing the shy ‘tsoops’ of bullfinches; desperately trying to count wheeling flocks of winter thrushes; or marvelling at the crickets and grasshoppers diving away as my feet swish through the grass.
At the corner where I once watched a redstart, I peer through the tangled branches of a fallen tree wishing it still to be there – but it isn’t.
When the water levels are higher, I keep alert for flushed snipe, twisting and turning in fast flight. I have seen stoats and foxes, come almost face-to-face with a startled tawny owl, seen cuckoos and watched displaying curlews with their wild, bubbling song.
My regular visits over five years mean that I have built a bank of memories, of things seen, heard and experienced though the seasons. Every visit gives me something new from this most atmospheric of places.
Caroline Coleman, Volunteer surveyor for BBOWT