Welcome to our AFON Advent Calendar! Each day leading up to Christmas you will find a wonderful new post by a different member. This years theme is your favourite nature reserve; where do you go to escape from the world and connect with nature? Enjoy!
During my first spell in Whiteknights Park – the main campus of the University of Reading – I was a student of meteorology, and my head was consequently (if understandably) in the clouds. But the 300-acre campus is bisected by a glorious swathe of open parkland, mixed woodland and a large ornamental lake, surroundings which easily facilitated encounters with nature even if I wasn’t looking for them. I particularly remember spotting a little owl perched on a lamppost at dawn one late winter’s day. I didn’t know at the time that this was a rare visitor to the park.
I returned as an MSc conservation student and born-again birder in 2010, just a few months before breeding little owls arrived, the first on the site since my friend on the lamppost. You might say they’ve been following me, and I can’t blame them, for Whiteknights is a wonderful place to be either an owl or a naturalist. The grasslands are managed as traditional hay meadows, cut just once a year to maximize biodiversity. The woodland, known as ‘The Wilderness’, along with the adjacent semi-formal Harris Gardens, contains countless hidden corners in which to get happily lost. Altogether the park comprises an impressive tract of wildlife-friendly habitat, considering it is an island completely adrift in the ever-expanding Reading suburbs.
These days I’m almost happiest finding wildlife in the unexpected and underexplored parts of the park, whether it’s the unusual flora and fauna on bare ground where greenhouses used to stand, the shady grass under a lime tree by the library where white helleborines grow, or seeking overwintering bugs and barkflies in the foliage of ornamental conifers. Yet my inner birder is still given something to get excited about from time to time too: goosanders, peregrines, ravens and a yellow-browed warbler are all new additions to the campus bird list over the past year.
The other chief joy of being a naturalist in Whiteknights Park, besides the diversity of habitats and species, is the support and friendship of like-minded staff and students. Together we’re documenting our findings on the Whiteknights Biodiversity blog and Twitter, and encouraging as many people as possible to get involved with wildlife recording on campus. So far, our efforts have yielded a species list nearly 1500 strong, and we know there is much more to find.
I don’t often enough reflect on how lucky I am to spend working days in such beautiful, wildlife-rich surroundings. There are a thousand adventures waiting just a few minutes’ walk from my desk. Whiteknights Park is a place where I once lived, still study, and now also work for a living. But much more than that, since there are few places with which I have a longer ongoing relationship, it is one of the closest things I have to a home. I couldn’t ask for much more in a local patch.