And that's the birdy news over for this post. You can leave now if you want. The blog post is more about Berengrave LNR itself, and changes since the boardwalk closed.
Imagine the quarry paths as a (very rough) triangle. In the good old days (when I moved back in 2013), coming in from the estuary, you had two routes down either side to choose from to reach the third southern edge. To the west, an undulating walk along the quarry edge, with very few views down into the pit. To the east, a wonderful roller coaster of a boardwalk, rising and falling into the quarry depths until a final steep climb out of what one birder described as the nearest thing on planet earth to Dagobah. Colour me green and call me Yoda. Easy to guess which way I always chose.
In those days, the boardwalk was in good condition, but time was running out. The construction and repair work had, over the years, been carried out mainly by a support group, the Friends of Berengrave. Long story short, politics crept in and the rot set in; repairs were not allowed and the boardwalk was eventually closed off to the public by the Council.
What this meant was that any circular route around the reserve was no longer available. The number of visitors plummeted. Thankfully I could still get to my Magpie count spot and while I couldn't explore as much as in the past I was now keen to see what happened with the birds. Ever since the Foot and Mouth outbreak in 2001 and the 'closure of the countryside' I'd supported what was found by many back then; you stop the public from wandering the countryside and birds do better.
So, first thought had been 'this is going to be good'. The main users of this tiny local nature reserve were recreational dog walkers. A known disturbance. Here though, dogs had always been mainly on leads (there are some steep drops around the quarry), so not as much uncontrolled disturbance as elsewhere. Noise disturbance? Sure the odd yappy (and by that I mean the shouty owner), but usually fairly quiet. The main effect noticed in the past had been flighting. A noisy visitor would put up early roosters, with Woodpigeon and Magpie the most noticeable. About two thirds of the time, they would circle and resettle, otherwise they would move off, normally towards cover nearby (beyond the Berengrave Nurseries and towards the Bloors Community Woodland). The Magpies would then often work back, the Woodpigeon not so much. Harder to note the effects on smaller passerines, but small groups of finches would put up, and again, some species more prone to leaving Berengrave and not returning that evening; Goldfinches often appeared the most reluctant to stay, and they never roosted deep in the quarry anyway, preferring the edgelands; roost quality obviously played a part in any flight decision.
There were sometimes noisier human visitors of course. The reserve appealed to the younger element. The rising boardwalk was a good climbing frame, the paths, despite the no cycling signs, a nice little off-road workout.
I think during those first few years I met fewer than a dozen naturalists. And that would have been one botanist and eleven birders- we were never great users. A hard to work site, with minimal facilities? Birders were always likely to amble elsewhere.
Following the boardwalk closure local dog walkers still take the eastern route to and from the main Country Park, but in much smaller numbers. Many dogs don't get long walks in Medway. Fewer still dog walkers bother with the dead end of a southern edge now it leads nowhere. During the 90 minutes of a count I see less than a quarter of the number of park walkers I had before. This southern edge is where my viewpoint is and it is certainly true contacts are up. Though for most common species my roost numbers are fairly similar, birds seem more likely to loiter along this top edge rather than hurry down in.
Fewer adventurous youth now as well. The boardwalk still does appeal though, being a big ol' scary climbing frame now. But the routine flushings of the pre-roost gatherings of Magpies and Woodpigeons are a thing of the past now.
All in all, I'd say the birds are enjoying the lower disturbance levels.
But there has been a growth in another area of human activity. Fewer recreational public, more recreational drug users.
Good and bad birders. Good and bad dog walkers. Good and bad potheads. The nice ones are really pleasant. They come to sit on one of the three benches along the southern edge, smoke their weed, take in the view and chill out. And they're pretty chilled about me if I turn up at the first bench to count. I explain what I'm about, and they go 'whoooah', have a look through the 'scope and then wander off to one of the other benches. I'm sure one of their number was behind the 'save the bees' graffiti that appeared on the barrier.
Good 'uns usually arrive in pairs. Stumble in upon a hazy cloud made up of more than half-a-dozen, and you know to tread carefully. Usually no more than a bit of verbal if you set up shop, normally never more than a loud verbal, especially if they're at the second bench just about five metres away.
I just think of the abuse being rather like adolescent chimps flinging faeces. Same old sh*t we've all had to put up with over the years. And they never actually threaten actual violence. T'was ever so.
But you know on the evenings you don't show, they're the ones setting the small fires, breaking the barriers. Throwing their beer cans down the bank. T'was ever so.
The third bench, the far bench? Well, that's another few hundred metres on, and only the most adventurous dog walkers venture that far. You have to want to be going there. So this spot appeals to those who like tablets a little stronger, the ones that come in teeny plastic bags with cheery little logos printed on them.
What the heck do the owners, the local council, do with an 'asset' like Berengrave? We nature lovers don't show the love enough enough, yet we expect our Councils to uphold our LNRs. Should they spend loads on replacing the boardwalk when it is so little used? Should they pull it down as it is no longer fit for purpose? Or do they close off all access as they did for a short time prior to my move back?
Never mind the human politics, what would the birds say?
Well, it is one of the few overgrown areas left locally. Roosts opportunities abound. For common 'town' species, the noisy humans never really had an effect on numbers in the past, and neither have their roosting numbers increased since it has become quieter. Too soon to say if the more 'sensitive' species have increased. Their numbers, like these Brambling I've watched this past winter, are up and down for other reasons. A lot of these species are usually the last into roost anyway, chances are they've always missed the noisier people by dropping in at last light.
Of course, summer and breeding are a whole different study but Berengrave remains a safe winter haven. Long may it stay so. With the amount of housing going up close by, the importance grows.
Me, personally? Well, I hope they never feel the need to completely close off again because of purely selfish reasons; I've loved my five winters of Magpie roost counting.
Who would want to be a Council employee/ Councillor responsible for making best decisions for all users of a site like this?
There's a price to pay for hanging on to sites like these, one that fewer birders seem willing to pay. We don't shop for our sightings at the Mom'n'Pop old style sites. We don't even go and browse at the out-of-town birding megastores so much. We browse the internet for good stuff, and buy in to what we're told are the must-haves this season.
Me? I've just resolved to make a few more visits than usual this breeding season, before the 'everything must go' signs appear..
For more information on this LNR do check out the now sadly dormant 'Friends of Berengrave' website.
|Sections of the boardwalk are closed off by simple planks..|
|..the adventurous just climb beside them..|
|..viewpoint barriers tend to disappear during school hols..|
Berengrave past: Views from the boardwalk