A mindful walk in nature at Low Barns Nature Reserve

Low Barns Nature Reserve (c) Rachel Richards

So many of us found a new or deeper connection with nature, landscape and season during the last lockdown. As we enter another lockdown, take a walk with me around Low Barns Nature Reserve.

Watch the seasons change and the wildlife adapt, as we find ourselves doing the same.

Autumn is a time of change. For birds and animals it’s about feeding; getting busy in the short hours of day light, building up reserves for the winter. For some, it’s about moving to warmer climes. For trees and many plants, it’s about dying back and resting. We are not that dissimilar.

The autumn colours are a beautiful reminder of this. Greens become yellows, oranges, reds and, finally, browns as leaves fall and trees rest. An explosion of colour followed by a loss of colour. Walking around Low Barns Nature Reserve, eyes can feast on red berries, yellow larch needles and orange beech and, like a gift from nature or the creator, this beauty lifts the spirit.

Slowing down as you walk, stopping, listening, perhaps leaning against a tree, you will hear flocks of long tailed tits traveling together through the trees with blue tits, coal tits and great tits following along; gleaning seeds and insects from branches and leaves. Redwings flit through the upper branches of tall trees or feed from haws. Male bullfinches flash their crimson chests, and the soft tones of nuthatch calls are never far away.

The bird feeders are a buzz of constant activity and competition. Watch a while and glimpse another world outside of our own. Wait a while and chance an encounter: perhaps a hungry sparrowhawk flyby; a beautiful chestnut-feathered tree creeper with its white, fluffy belly feathers and long, forked tail always traveling up trees - it can’t go down – or maybe a flock of small, yellow, green and black siskin. No siskin today but the tree creeper was a treat.

Then the river. The river is both constant yet dynamic, like much of life. The reserve at Low Barns is nestled within a loop of the River Wear. Along the southern side of the site, the path approaches the river and wanders along beside it. At a number of spots the trees part and provide a view; each is unique. Some stretches are deep and quiet, others rush by noisily over rocks. Otters fish in these rivers. I enjoy the fishermen’s tales but, so far, they have evaded me, leaving me only signs of their presence: a print in the soft river sand, spraint on a rock or a discarded crayfish claw. On a good day, a bright turquoise kingfisher delights us with the short gift of its momentary presence, and often dippers are seen flying beneath the water to pick caddisfly larvae from rocks. All the while, the constant notes of the rushing river, the autumn colours and perhaps a ray of sunshine somehow soothe and recharge the soul.

On the lake, the water birds are busy, or not. It’s surprising, when you watch, how much time many actually seem to spend doing little or nothing: sleeping, preening or splashing around. Tufted ducks and little grebes continually dive for fish and invertebrate, along with occasional goldeneye. Numbers of goldeneye will build as more birds arrive from northern climates through the winter. Mallard, teal and a small group of female wigeon dabble for aquatic plants. One solitary male shoveller dozes on an island. When feeding, this duck swims along with its large wide bill in the water, waving it from side to side to filter feed. A female shoveller can look very similar to a female mallard at a distance, though slightly larger and with this unusual feeding behaviour.

I plod on round the reserve, kicking leaves and chatting with visitors as I go. Stopping to stare up at trees: searching for the birds that call out of sight, absorbing the colour and beauty, spotting fungi, lush ferns, lichen-laden branches, breathing in the fresh, cool, autumnal air.

Back at the centre, I buy a take-away coffee from the café (note to self: bring a cup next time) and chat with regulars. Our regulars, most of whom are members, are at the heart of Durham Wildlife Trust. Many pick up litter, fill up bird feeders, fix things and share their wildlife encounters and knowledge with other visitors and so much more. During the last 8 months, their continued support and adherence to social distancing has been hugely appreciated so a big shout out to them - THANK YOU. If you have never been to Low Barns, please do visit and enjoy. If you are not a Durham Wildlife Trust member, please consider joining us and supporting the work we do to manage over 37 nature reserves in the North East, all of which are open for all.

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