Sandwell Valley

Sandwell Valley

Sandwell Valley
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Sandwell Valley

  • Of Hives and Hornets

    Over the last six weeks our volunteers have been eagerly watching a hornet's nest down on the path that leads from the Hide to the Tame River. With cameras ready in hand they've headed down each weekend to record its progress, documenting the different stages of nest building. The nest itself is being constructed inside the hollow of an old gnarly oak tree - one of the oldest on the Sandwell reserve. It's estimated to be around 100 years old. (When compared to our other 30 year old trees across the reserve this is very old indeed!)

    There are three holes in the tree which allow the hornets to enter and exit, doubling up as a kind of ventilation system. When winter comes the hornets may choose to close one or two of these entrances to defend themselves against the cold, and prevent any harsh winds that might damage the nest. The nest has been built in the old hollow oak tree with the hornets removing any further rotting wood by clearing it out and dropping it away from the nest. The worker hornets fly away to collect insects for feeding the larvae in their nest and also chew up wood into a pulp and mix it with saliva in order to build their nest, creating a sort of papery look to their home.

    A hornet's nest, if not disturbed, can last up to 3 or 4 years and takes quite a while to build. It is intricately constructed, and when observed closely it is a fantastic display of the mathematical workings of the natural world. Each hexagonal cell is perfectly made, with multiple layers building up over time. The larvae are individually housed in each of these cells, and after three weeks they will emerge as worker hornet, one of the many to join this thriving, busy hive, working together under the rule of the queen.

    A few weeks ago one of our volunteers spotted a hornet sitting at the entrance to the nest. This hornet is known as a guard. Much like any guard to a castle, the hornet will keenly watch every passer-by that approaches the hive, greet them at the doorway and then, if they belong to the hive, let them pass through. Hornets are very defensive creatures, so if you do choose to go and have a look at their nest be careful to stay on the path, keep a safe distance, and don't provoke them.

    You can often see hornets between May and November, they are our largest British wasp, so our volunteers are hoping to document the hornet's progress until the winter season.

    Find out more about hornets on the RSPB website: https://www.rspb.org.uk/birds-and-wildlife/wildlife-guides/other-garden-wildlife/insects-and-other-invertebrates/bees-wasps-ants/hornet/

    Photo credit: Andy Purcell

  • Reflections on a Theme

    Since last September the hardworking volunteers at RSPB Sandwell Valley have been working on a small patch of land tucked away between Storytelling Corner and one of our Pond Dipping ponds. Following an extremely harsh winter and sky-rocketing temperatures this summer, the reserve has endured three very difficult seasons, But now, as Autumn approaches and promises to blanket us in warm amber and rouge, it seems the earth is much more pliable and the weather much finer for our volunteers to be out working in.

    Before work started the area was excessively overgrown; brambles tangled with weeds and dishevelled bushes, creating a sort of untamed wilderness which, according to our ecologist, wouldn't provide a safe or quality home for our resident wildlife. So the question was: how could we best transform the area into a place that would be more beneficial for our wildlife? The answer was: a Reflection Garden.

    The idea for a Reflection Garden, to create a quiet semi-formal/semi-natural area, was formed several years ago and undertaken as a Community Project. Some of the trees in the area were planted in memory of people many years ago, but unfortunately these details were lost in the building fire. Several local groups have helped out during the process: a group of local Duke of Edinburgh students undertook the Volunteering section of their award by clearing the area; HSBC corporate work parties came and worked alongside our own RSPB volunteers; a group from Leonard Cheshire Disability charity designed and helped install some of the stepping stones, and we now have a couple more added to this collection; and a local Women's Institute donated fruit trees for the garden. We have also recently received a donation in memory of a regular birdwatcher which will be used to buy some plants.

    So far the work party have laid down the foundations for a winding path which will end in a teardrop-shaped path around the wooden bench that hugs a lovely pendunculate oak (otherwise known as an English oak). Last week they began putting in the path from this bench to the reflection pool - which has been dug out and lined in the hopes that newts and dragonflies and other water-loving creatures will make their homes there once it's finished - and back around to the main path. The edging is in ready for the membrane and wood chip to go in soon.

    After each work party session our volunteers sit down for a well-deserved cuppa and an assortment of biscuits whilst planning out the tasks for the next session. Once the path is completed and the garden filled with luscious green plants, it will be a wonderfully peaceful place to sit, reflect and contemplate. RSPB Sandwell has always been a place of refuge and peace for many, and we hope that this new Reflection Garden will offer an extra special haven for visitors, walkers and lovers of nature alike, surrounded by our local wildlife and a place of natural beauty.

    Photo credit: Andy Purcell

  • Stand and Stare

    With the summer holidays in full swing we're all looking for the opportunity to set aside work and relax, whether it's spending time with friends, visiting new places or simply stepping out into the great outdoors. It's a well known fact that going outside, being surrounded by the natural word, is sure to help bring down those stress levels. But what is it exactly that helps us to relax? A refreshing breeze? Listening to the birds singing? The simplistic beauty of a green space?

    In this blog our volunteer Roy Williams explores a philosophical and intellectual idea of what it means to be surrounded by a place of beauty...

         ---

    In 1911 the Welsh Poet W.H.Davies wrote in his poem “Leisure” the following often quoted lines:

    “What is this life, if, full of care,

    We have no time to stand and stare”

    When I walk into the Visitor Centre at RSPB Sandwell Valley and look out of our windows, these words come to mind. My eyes scan the sloping foreground meadow down to the marsh, then over the lake and up the hill to the golf course. To the left and right the line of trees are like arms, wrapping itself around the view.

    Visitors to the Nature’s Reach Centre also stare at this view. So what are they seeing that is so absorbing? I think it is the absence of everything which defines our urban life – homes, businesses, vehicles and noise.

    In modern times we describe the view as ‘picturesque’, but before 1782 this description would not have been understood by the average man or woman. It was introduced into the cultural debate by William Gilpin in his book “Observations on the River Wye and Several Parts of South Wales, etc”

    The term ‘picturesque’ needs to be understood in relationship to two other aesthetic ideals: the beautiful and the sublime. Beauty is a characteristic of an animal, idea, object, person or place that provides a perceptual experience or pleasure or satisfaction. In aesthetics, the Sublime (from the Latin sublimis) is the quality of greatness, whether physical, moral, intellectual, metaphysical aesthetic, spiritual or artistic.

    I think our view at RSPB Sandwell Valley is one of Beauty – A place that provides a perceptual experience of pleasure and satisfaction.

    For most of us, living in the Birmingham or Black Country conurbation a picturesque view from a window of our home is almost impossible; unless you are rich. The normal view is of other houses, walled and fenced in with a tree and a garden. If you live on a higher floor, your view is often of the roofs of other buildings torn through with roads and traffic.

    I think that staring down to the lake relieves the day to day stresses and imprints a memory in the brain that can be recalled when we want to relax. The birds on the feeders, the plants in the meadow, the reflection on the water and the occasional fox are all a bonus In 1916, in the middle of a devastating war, W.H.Davies wrote the following lines in his poem “April Charms”:

    “And hear the pleasant cuckoo loud and long,

    The simple bird that thinks two notes a song.”

    I haven’t seen or heard a cuckoo at Sandwell Valley, but when I do I shall stop and stare and listen to its song.

    - Roy Williams, RSPB Sandwell Valley Volunteer