The Wildlife of Battlemead
by Brian Clews
Prior to being obtained by the Royal Borough, the site was part of White Place Farm and much of what can be expected on a walk along any of the new footpaths criss-crossing the site are the creatures typical of a farmland environment. All wildlife of course requires specific habitat in which to thrive and Battlemead is fortunate to have several different habitat types.
So far this has attracted some 90 species of bird, 17 butterfly types, 9 different dragonflies and 83 other insect forms, and these numbers keep going up the more the site is explored.
Much of it is grassland traditionally used for grazing, rather than crops, and as such there is a rich assemblage of insect life, which will increase as more wildflowers flourish there. Birdlife tends to differ from field to field. West Field, accessed by the main entrance gate, tends to attract mostly ground-feeding species, and so it is not hard to come across the familiar Green Woodpecker hopping and crawling through the tussocks looking for ants. Any seed heads present, especially in autumn and winter, will attract flocks of delightful Goldfinches whilst Meadow Pipits might be seen bobbing up and down in flight uttering their faint ‘peep’ calls as they meander seemingly aimlessly around the field.
In winter, flocks of Jackdaws and Stock Doves seem to favour this field for their group feeding frenzies, occasionally accompanied by numbers of Fieldfares which join us from the continent between November and April, and Jays are often collecting acorns from the adjacent Oaks and rushing back and forth to bury them, hopefully to be remembered when other food resources become low.
Among the regular butterflies here are Orange Tips, Marbled Whites and Brown Argus, and a number of the impressive Wasp Spider was discovered recently, their orb webs created in the longer grasses. And all around the edges, signs of badger trails which are used during their nocturnal forays.
The smaller field beyond the radio mast has tended to be left to nature to see what it might become and there is a good range of wildflower types, in turn attracting a whole range of pollinating insects such as bees and hoverflies, along with shieldbugs of various types, brilliantly-coloured Dock Beetles, and both ‘military’ beetles, Sailor and Soldier varieties. Here, Common Blue, Peacock and Red Admiral butterflies move from plant to plant whilst various Grasshoppers can be found and the incessant buzzing of Roesel’s Bush-crickets creates a calming background on a warm, sunny day.
In winter, especially on any damp patches, Little Egrets stalk for any suitable morsels whilst Fieldfares and Redwings occupy the surrounding trees. With good fortune, one of the local pair of Little Owl might show up or at least call across the meadow from an unseen haunt among the Oak Trees surrounding the field.
This large field abounding the Thames has been undergoing a transformation for some years. Over time, the Whitebrook would regularly overflow and create some seasonal flashes of standing water along one side which have grown in size and sometimes become an all-year feature. This has proven a magnet for some of the region’s scarcer wintering ducks, such as Teal and Wigeon. These birds undertake enormous migration journeys form locations such as the Russian steppes and the Arctic Circle, seeking shallow, quiet waters where they can build up their reserves for the following breeding season and the accompanying return migration. Easily spooked, it is hoped that a means of leaving them undisturbed can be achieved so they remain an annual attraction to the site.
The self-same waters also prove valuable to additional Little Egrets and, more recently, even the heron-sized Great White Egret, a relative new-comer to the UK but which is being noted with increasing regularity on Widbrook and Battlemead wetlands. Add to this the wide range of passage waders being recorded on these flashes, such as Redshank, both Green and Common Sandpipers, Ringed Plovers, and Snipe, and the true value of this habitat becomes clearer. Even Oystercatchers have been seen mating on several occasions here.
The more open grassland stretches often encourage geese to arrive to graze, occasionally in good numbers. The inevitable Canada Geese are usually accompanied by some Greylags, and one or two pairs of Egyptian Geese have added offspring here by breeding in the borders of the wetland. A historic visitor to this field over the last fifteen years has been a striking Bar-headed Goose. Most likely escapees from a collection somewhere, a pair used to breed here raising two or three young each year but now just a lone individual seems to wander between the local water-bodies such as Little Marlow and Summerleaze gravel pits, and to call into Battlemead for old time’s sake.
Whilst an element of control is necessary on the reeds which grow along the White Brook through the site, those that are protected encourage a range of interesting species. In winter, though usually concealed from view, Water Rails can be heard ‘squealing’ or ‘pinking’ Black-bird-like, with up to five being present at one time. Moorhens and even Pheasants will avail themselves of the cover provided by the reeds in winter, and another regular in the colder months has proven to be the busy Stonechat, a pair often twitching from place to place in search of food. An exciting new resident has arrived since the winter of 2020/21 in the form of a pair of Cetti’s Warbler. Their loud, car-alarm type of call can now be heard from the cover of reeds and scrub and it is hoped they will soon be breeding here.
Summertime brings the arrival of a number of reed-bed inhabitants which hope to raise their young here. The most prominent will be the migratory Reed Warbler, a specialist of Phragmites Reeds which grow close enough together that dainty nests can be woven between the stems, providing a crèche for 2 or 3 broods during the summer. Reed Buntings, a resident finch-like bird also nests in the reedbeds but is equally happy to use the larger Bulrushes whilst another summer visitor, the Sedge Warbler will utilise the surrounding scrub to raise its own broods.
And of course any water-course is likely to become the backdrop to a dazzling Kingfisher scurrying past in a blur of blue and green.
But it is not just birds that can be enjoyed among these regimented plants and associated aquatic vegetation: damselflies and dragonflies abound in summer. And among the more obvious ones such as the impressive Emperor Dragonfly from springtime, and the bright red Common Darter near autumn, a group of similar-looking blue damselflies are ever-present.
Most of these prove to be the Common Blue and the Azure Blue Damselflies, but literally just across the road on the Widbrook Common stretch of the stream, the somewhat scarcer Variable Damselfly has been seen regularly so there is a hope it might cross over into Battlemead at some point and form a colony here.
On all sides of West and North Fields, around the radio mast, and in the far southeast of the site, there exists an array of trees. Many are mature and statuesque, and others are yet young and spindly and still others are well past their best and have tumbled to the ground or lay at crazy angles waiting to do so themselves.
This erratic tree-scape holds an assemblage of woodland birds including ‘garden’ species such as Blue and Great Tits, Robins, Blackbirds, Song Thrush and Chaffinches. But there are less common types to be found too. Nuthatches and Treecreepers can be heard, if not seen, whilst Long-tailed and Coal Tits join their commoner relations. Ring-necked Parakeets are always to be seen and the dainty Goldcrest is often about; its flashier cousin the Firecrest has also been recorded.
A range of nest boxes has been installed, both for the smaller garden bird types but also for the benefit of some of the larger birds. Barn Owls have often bred in boxes here and Tawny owls can be heard, and occasionally seen, especially near the radio mast. Boxes have also been provided for Little Owl and even for Mandarin Duck, unusual among the other waterfowl here in being a hole-nesting species.
Among the larger birds which have nested in the sturdier trees are Buzzard and Red Kite. In summer they are joined by the dashing Hobby, streaking around the sky in search of both flying insects and aerial bird species such as House Martins and Swifts when it has young to feed.
The combination of habitat diversity, and the changing seasons, ensures there is always something to see and hear as nature increasingly inhabits this charming place. One cannot be sure just how many species of plant, insect and animal is present on Battlemead, and for that reason WildCookham and Wild Maidenhead continue to survey the site to establish a fuller picture of its overall value to wildlife. 2021 will see more plant surveys and the introduction of monitoring of moths and aquatic creatures. It is hoped guided walks can become a regular feature so that we can introduce more and more people to the natural delights of this quiet part of the Royal Borough.
Meantime we would encourage visitors to take perhaps a bit more time on their walks; to stand and stare occasionally, because surely one will see far more by doing so. Take a pair of binoculars to observe the slightly more distant creatures and always feel free to send in sightings, photos or videos of anything not recognised and our team will do their best to identify them.
Finally we would like to thank the many local walkers who have been submitting hundreds of photographs of what they see around the Borough for our Facebook pages, and especially to those whose photos appear with this article.
We hope Battlemead continues to provide natural history delights for many families and individuals for many years to come.
The WildCookham Team