A bee day

I spent a bit of this afternoon looking a the smaller wildlife in my back garden, well bees really. I don’t have many flowering plants in my garden but the lavender bushes are in full bloom at the moment and the bees are going mad for them.

This was the first time I’ve tried a spot of bee IDing and I found four different species feeding on the plants; common carder, honey, buff-tailed bumble and red-tailed bumble. The shot below is a common carder (I think)…

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Orkney: The wildlife

One of the main reasons I went to Orkney was to see the wildlife and I wasn’t disappointed. I heard a long time ago how the Northern Isles are pretty spectacular for birdlife and they truly are; with the breeding season well underway, the sheer quantity of birds is simply breathtaking.

The greatest spectacle is all around as you travel through the islands in the early summer. The quantity of breeding waders is like nothing I have seen anyway else in the UK. It seems as if every field has its own resident pair of curlew and their calls ring out constantly. I loved going to sleep and waking up to those spiritful cries and, for me, there are fewer more evocative sounds of wild Britain. There are other waders, however, with oystercatchers seemingly as plentiful, constantly in a state of alarm or sheer panic, and redshanks, golden plover and lapwing are in good numbers too. I also saw some migrants still on their way north including lovely summer plumage dunlin, black-tailed godwit and sanderling.

The other big spectacle are the seabird cliffs, of which there are many and on a number of the islands. One my first day I had a good walk around Mull Head Nature Reserve on the north-east corner of the Deerness Peninsula. All along the coastal cliffs there are good numbers of guillemots (common and black), razorbills, fulmar and shags. I thought I heard the calls of kittiwakes there too but I believe their numbers reduced significantly at this site. This was also where I had my first head-to-head meeting with bonxies; the infamous harassing great skuas.

Out on Westray are the greatest seabird cliffs in the archipelago, at the RSPB’s Noup Head reserve. The huge towering cliffs have all the birds listed above but it is also Orkney’s only gannetry. This was the first gannetry I’ve seen and I spent a lovely lunchtime watching these iconic birds noisily come and go beneath me.

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One really interesting observation was the location of fulmar nests on some of the more remote locations. I’m used to seeing fulmar, like those on my favourite island, Ramsey, nesting high up on cliffs. On Sanday, however, I found them nesting at the back of beaches under the first tussocks of grass beyond the sand; surely a sign of the lack of predators and human interference.

I also spent a while at a puffin colony on Westray trying to get some shots of these most-photogenic of birds and I wasn’t disappointed…

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Elsewhere away from the cliffs there are good chances of seeing terns, and I had views, and close passes, of both arctic and little terns. There are arctic terns in a number of spots in Orkney but little terns can only be found breeding by the fourth Churchill Barrier between Barray and North Ronaldsay. This was the first time I’ve seen these lovely little birds but I made sure I didn’t approach too close to their small breeding colony.

I was also hoping to see a few birds of prey and I took two great memories from Orkney and both came from within a few hundred metres of each other on the southern island of Hoy. I had my first ever (albeit distant) view of a white-tailed eagle chick on a nest, which also happened to be the first to hatch in Orkney in over 140 years. Just a short distance away as I was walking down the public road back to the foot ferry at Moaness, I saw a pair of hen harrier mobbing a bonxie. As the intruder moved away, the male harrier spotted me and came over to check me out and move me on as I continued on my way. Normally, getting this close to a pair of hen harriers would be seen as interfering with them but there was little I could do given this was the only road in northern Hoy and there were plenty of other pedestrians and cyclists using that route.

Over the course of my stay on Orkney, I recorded 71 species of bird, which isn’t a bad total. This included a number of other northern specialities including red-throated diver, hooded crow, eider, twite and arctic skua. The relative of the bonxie, arctic skuas are a slimmer and more falcon-like bird and much less of a general menace, in fact they’re rather a nice looking bird.

I wasn’t expecting to see great numbers of hirundines but I saw good numbers of swallow and sand martin, as well as the unrelated swift. I don’t recall ever seeing so many sand martins and came across two nice sized colonies in beach-side sand walls.

There is, however, a sad element of a visit to Orkney and that is concerned with the changes in seabird populations. Only the week before I was reading in a national newspaper how numbers of many seabird species have plummeted over recent decades in the islands all around Scotland, probably as a result of losses in their food supply through over-fishing and climate change. It might be that my visit to Orkney was a last chance to see large numbers of cliff-nesting seabirds as, if their numbers continue to decline, there may not be many left when I next manage a visit to this lovely bird-rich group of islands.

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On my first day, I had an evening tour with Tim Dean, a local expert on all things Orkney wildlife including birds and plants. This really set me up for the week and he told me of some great locations to go looking for wildlife. He also introduced me to the only mammal I saw on the trip, a Cuvier’s beaked whale. Unfortunately, it had been washed up on the beach at Marwick Bay and had been deceased for quite a while. I have to say that Tim was one of the best local wildlife guides I’ve had a trip with in the UK and he really put in great effort before and during the trip to ensure I saw what I wanted. His contact details can be found here and I would certainly recommend him.

Orkney: Scapa Flow

Scapa Flow is such an evocative name, one that conjures up visions of freezing, dark and windswept waters surrounded on all sides by bleak, cold, low lying islands. It brings visions of sunken ships in the deep and rusting hulks in the shallows and of waves crashing against rocky shorelines battered by storms. I have imagined it as a deserted place, as a place of the past, of former glories, once at the centre of a time but now a place more of history than the present. 

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With the history I know, it has sparked an interest in me for some time and it is one of the main  reasons why I wanted to visit Orkney. Across most of the UK there is little evidence of the two world wars, with the exception of fighter and bomber airbases and some remaining coastal defences but Orkney is one of the best places to see this part of our history in the flesh (well concrete and metal).

Scapa Flow is one of the greatest natural anchorages in the world and being so far from the European mainland, it was the obvious choice to be the home of the Royal Navy in both world wars. Some major events happened at Scapa Flow with the two most infamous being the scuttling of the German fleet in 1918 when it had been surrendered at the end of the war and the sinking of HMS Royal Oak by a German submarine in October 1939 with the loss of 833 men. There is little visible evidence of these two events now but on the islands surrounding Scapa Flow there is so much more to still be seen, left over relics of both wars. 

The largest remains from Orkney’s wartime past are the Churchill Barriers, the manmade causeways built at the beginning of the Second World War to reduce the number of navigable entrances into Scapa Flow. They now form the roads that link Orkney Mainland to a string of islands to the south east; Lamb Holm, Glims Holm, Barray and South Ronaldsay. Originally, block ships had been sunk in the narrows between the islands, some can still be seen, but at the beginning of the Second World War, many had fallen apart and this allowed the submarine to enter Scapa Flow and sink the Royal Oak. On the orders of Winston Churchill, then the First Lord of the Admiralty, permanent concrete causeways were built, with roadways laid on top.

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During both wars, other major defences were built on the land surrounding the harbour with gun positions, watch towers and search light positions built along with the accommodation for the troops operating them. Much of these defences are still evident all around Scapa Flow itself as well as on other islands. There is also evidence of a number of airfields built to protect the harbour and islands from areal attack.

On one of the days I was in Orkney I visited Hoxa Head on South Ronaldsay where there still stands much of what was one of the main defensive positions; this one protecting the southern entrance into Scapa Flow. There are remnants of both First and Second World War defences with the latter being very well preserved. There is a good walk around the Headland which takes in all of the former military site and it’s well worth going. The photos below hopefully put across the stark beauty of the place and the sense of history.

Just to the north of Hoxa Head is the Italian Chapel on Lamb Holm. This was built by Italian prisoners of war who converted two Nissen huts into their own place or worship. The Italian’s were held on an airfield and during their time in Orkney were used as labour to build the Churchill Barriers.

Elsewhere in the area it is possible to see more evidence of the Orkney’s nautical history.  With its numerous islands and rocks, and challenging weather, Orkney is the last resting place of many unfortunate ships. One such wreck can be found on the east coast of North Ronaldsay, just south of Grim Ness Head. The Irene, a Liberian-registered cargo ship, ran aground on the night of 17th March 1969 after drifting inland in a storm. All of her crew were rescued from the shore but in trying to provide assistance, heading to the wrong location, the Longhope Lifeboat, TGB, capsized with the loss of all eight of her own crew. There is still a lot of evidence of the Irene on the shoreline with the much much of her hull gone but her boilers left behind alongside other major structures. 

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Orkney has its history in plain sight and much of its 20th Century military and nautical history is quite spectacular and set in stunning locations. In addition, like many of the Scottish islands, Orkney also has a huge range of sites from history well before the 20th Century and while I visited some, there is still so much more for me to see. To learn more, Stromness Museum is also well worth a visit.

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A hot osprey shift!!!

The car windows are already open as I turn onto the track, the air under the woodland canopy is cool and fresh compared to the open above the road and valley bottom pastures. The undergrowth has continued to grow in my absence and now brambles flick my wing mirrors as I trundle slowly down the lane. There are few other sounds coming into the car above the crackle of tyres over stones and fallen twigs. The birds are quiet except for an occasional whistle or chirp in amongst the leaves and bracken.

As I break cover, the dazzling light of the mid-summer sun strikes down harshly on the ground. The blue above highlights electric tones in the oaks leaves but the detail in the view is cast out by the mix of dark shadows and unfiltered glare. The heat of the day is continuing to build, both forced down from the cloudless sky and rebounding back up from the hardening ground. Weeks of heat have been stored in the tarmac road, stone walls and bare soil, and each successive day brings no respite. The grass is losing its spring green and lustre, stems are drying out and becoming crisp beneath my footsteps.  

There is still life here, however; there are butterflies flittering over the meadowlands and the young blue and great tits are feeding on the grain left out for them under the trees. Above the river, families of swallows and house martins feed on the abundance of insects rising up from the water, and a small group of swifts scream over head. The river itself is low, the lack of rain has drained its strength. The blooming of weed within the water is now starting to fill from bank to bank, giving respite to the shoals of small fish struggling with the shrinking depth and are increasing danger from the kingfisher’s vision.

The three chicks high up in the tall fir tree have grown beyond recognition since my last visit, now well feathered and wings starting to develop in strength. In the heat and strong sun there is little protection for them but their mother stands above , providing what meagre shadow she can.

I had only a short four hour shift today but it was long enough to enjoy the quietness of the valley. Perhaps a short shift was a good thing as the protection caravan was as hot as a sauna (although lacking the steam). With no clouds to speak of, the site could have been unbearable without the shade of the trees and a increasingly keen breeze. I’m not used to this, the words ‘osprey shift’ and ‘hot’ don’t normally go together for me; today must have been the hottest shift I’ve ever had.

The heat didn’t stop Aran from continuing his fatherly work and provided four fish in the day including a brown trout, two tench and a sea bass. The two tench are unusual compared to the sea fish he normally goes for but perhaps the hot and fry weather has made them more accessible.

It’s another few weeks until my next shift and the chicks may not be far off flying by then. They seem to grow so quickly and go from fresh hatchlings to fledglings in the bat of an eye. However, there’s still plenty of summer to go until they make their first long flights to Africa – if the weather stays like this we will have had an outstanding season.

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Orkney: Stromness

The built environment of Orkney has some jewels, the most lovely of which is Stromness. I certainly didn’t expect to find such an exquisite little harbour town of narrow winding streets, open squares and gaps providing views out to the sea and the islands beyond. I could have spent many more hours wandering happily around.

The town has a charm of its own; on initial viewing, it looks a little grey and foreboding, but taking time to stroll around the streets gives time to really soak it in.  The streets are a mixture of little cottages, grand houses, everyday shops and craft boutiques. There’s been plenty of care taken over the place and I’m sure the photos below give only a small impression of what it’s like. Given more time, I expect there are other little gems hidden around corners and up narrow passageways.

There’s plenty of history to be found in the town with many blue plaques identifying the homes of famous residents and the compact but well-stocked museum is well worth a visit.

I expect many people will drive straight off the Scrabster ferry and ignore the centre of the town. It’s easy to miss when getting away in the first mad rush of an emptying ferry, trying to avoid getting caught behind a lorry or campervan and wanting to get to destinations further onto Mainland or beyond. It would be a shame to do so, though, and I was glad I caught the little foot ferry to Hoy and had the opportunity to take a look after I returned.

Orkney: The green and pleasant islands

For the latest trip in my exploration of the Scottish islands I traveled up to the far north and beyond, to visit the intriguing archipelago of Orkney. After my numerous trips to the west coast islands, it was somewhat of a surprise just how different Orkney is to the often impressively bleak and majestic Outer Hebrides. The islands are primarily comprised of low, green rolling pastureland with only a few higher hills topped with heather moorland and no mountains to speak of with the exception of those on the Island of Hoy. The only real ruggedness comes in the form of the high rocky cliffs that occur frequently along the coastlines. There are very few trees and most fields are enclosed by wire fences rather than hedges, giving the landscape a feel of endless views and huge skies. Under the clear blue skies and bright warm sun I frequently experienced over the course of the week, it was a little paradise of the north.

More like the Hebrides, there are plenty of fine beaches, particularly if you venture on to some of the smaller islands. Sanday has some stunningly nice beaches along its coast and others have a fair selection to choose from too. In addition to Mainland, I visited Westray, Sanday and Hoy, all of which have their own landscapes and feel. As well as those beaches, Sanday is quite flat while Westray is similar to Mainland with rolling green pastures but some of the most spectacular cliffs, while Hoy has the highest hills and is mostly moorland. They were all worth a day trip while the small inter-island ferries gave opportunities to see some of the other islands as I passed on my way to and from those I visited.

The built environment of Orkney also has some jewels, the most lovely of which is Stromness. I certainly didn’t expect to find such an exquisite little harbour town of narrow winding streets, open squares and gaps providing views out to the sea and the islands beyond. I could have spent many more hours wandering happily around.

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Kirkwall, the largest town in the islands, is a little more businesslike in places but also has a few gems and nice pedestrian streets. The Highland Park Distillery is probably the best presented whisky distillery I’ve visited and is worth going to for the buildings alone along although I did make a purchase in the shop too (would have been wrong not to!). The town also has all the facilities you would expect in a much larger town elsewhere in Scotland with a good range of shops and supermarkets. It also has a feeling of prosperity in places with a very impressive looking new school and an equally impressive hospital under construction.

Getting around is easy with quiet but well maintained roads, a central airport and plenty of choices of ferry route from the Scottish mainland. I chose to travel on the Scrabster to Stromness route on Northlink’s MV Hamnavoe. I was impressed with this little ship; it was immaculately presented and loading and unloading were quick and efficient. I should have taken my bike with me too as it appears to be a very easy place to cycle – maybe next time!

Overall, the pleasant nature of Orkney, good range of facilities and the ease of getting around, stops the islands, well at least the main island, from feeling remote and certainly less so than the likes of Harris or the Uists. There’s so much to Orkney that it will take more than this post to cover it and certainly much more than one visit.

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A last task of spring?

With only 11 days to go until the summer solstice my visit yesterday to my Breeding Bird Survey gird square really seemed to mark the change from spring to summer. The weather was warm and dry, the landscape in its prime and the birds plentiful in the fields, trees, hedgerows and woodlands. The early freshness of spring has now worn off the countryside with deeper greens setting in but there are new flowers coming out replacing those earlier blooms.

I’m really lucky to have this particular grid square. It is a mixture of fields and woodlands on and just below the hills of the Cheshire sandstone ridge with the start point for the survey being in the village of Bulkeley and the route crossing over the Nantwich to Wrexham road and passing the Bickerton Poacher. These hills are my favourite part of the county so when I was offered the square five years I go, I didn’t hesitate to accept it.

Over the course of the two visits this year, I recorded 39 species, the second highest number recorded over the 18 years since 1998 that the square has been surveyed (it wasn’t surveyed in 2000, 2001 and 2013). Since I took over the square in 2014, I’ve seen an average of 37 species compared to 26 before. In total, 63 species have been recorded over the years and I’ve added 14 of those. This year I added garden warbler and hobby to the list.

Wandering around the countryside surveying the bird life is a lovely way to spend a morning but it’s made even more lovely by the countryside itself, and I even have a favourite little spot. Towards the end of the first of the two one kilometre transects is a small meadow and yesterday it was looking beautiful with the grassland flowers really starting to show well.

I do have one more survey to do, at my Cheshire Wildlife Trust survey site, but that will have to wait until the last weekend of the month – I just hope the weather allows me to complete it.

A sense of yearning for nature

In the city, people long for silence. I don’t. I long for the cacophony of the dawn chorus, the raging of the sea thrust forward by a storm, the ghostly call of the owl from deep in the darkness and the howl of the wolf that has so far eluded my hearing. Above all sounds, I dream of the screaming of swifts; on flickering wings, they are bringers of summer, bringers of joy, the ever-flying embodiments of the year at its peak.

I long to see beyond the next corner, beyond the houses, offices and factories. I long for the mountain-backed beach, with electric blue waters lapping on the crystal sands and the well-loved view from an island to the near mainland, a rolling patchwork laid out beyond. I long to wake to the shocking whiteness of the first fall of snow, untouched yet by foot or tyre and to see the rich nordic landscapes of lakes, trees and meadows. Beyond all those sights, I need green; the bright vibrant green of spring shoots, the robust green of summer trees, the evergreen of northern forests but also just the green of wide open fields, the green that brings a breathing out of the city fumes and dust and a drawing in of clean, cool and fresh untainted air.

Behind sites and sounds, I long for the warm, dusty scent of rain on summer ground, the dampness of leaf-strewn paths of late autumn and the first application of sunscreen, promising sunshine through the day ahead and signifying that I’m beyond the worst of the short, dark, cold winter days. For me, though, there is little better than breathing in the air of wild garlic as I cross a bridge over a spring stream; it is a momentary stimulation of a sense often over awed by swirling heady mixture of urban aromas.

Taste brings a different dimension to my longings. I long for a cheese and pickle sandwich eaten on a rambling cliffside walk, a dark and plump blackberry picked from the late summer bramble, a not so wee dram savoured on an evening doorstep with a cherished view but most of all I long for smoky sausages cooked over an open fire out in the wilderness.

I long to be touched by nature, by the rain on my face as I break from a doorway and head out into the open, to feel the air wafting in through an open window on warm summer nights, to feel sand beneath my feet as I run along a beach in the dark. I need to feel the rock as I clamber across a mountainside and sense the juddering of rough tracks as I cycle along forest paths and, yes, I need the feeling of my fingers and toes going numb while I stand in the frozen winter looking for wildlife. There is one touch of nature that goes beyond them all, the first caressing of a strengthening sun on bare skin as the clouds of winter float away. 

Most of all, I yearn. I yearn for the wide open spaces, I yearn for the solitude of the distant and remote, away from the sense-buffeting town and city.  Beyond all of this, I yearn for the wild. An ache comes over me, deep in my back, yearning for all that is lost and all that needs to be reborn. I yearn for a pure nature, untouched by us, a wilderness that is rich and original, one that is as true now as it ever was…a yearning cannot be sated.

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A first blog post for #30DaysWild

The transformation of spring

One great aspect about visiting a local spot throughout the year is that you can really see how the seasons change month by month. Yesterday in the heat of the afternoon I went for a walk around Wybunbury Moss and it was very much in its spring prime with the birds singing, the flowers blooming and the butterflies flitting about. This was in great contrast to my visit in December when the first snow of the winter had fallen, as the two photos below demonstrate…

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Despite the heat, the birds were really were singing loudly and I managed to record nearly 30 species including plenty of summer migrants; willow warbler, chiffchaff, sedge warbler, whitethroat and swallow. There were also signs of the first young of the year with a family band of long-tailed tits flying along a headline and a great spotted woodpecker feeding noisy chicks in their nest hole.

The walk yesterday was perfect spring stroll in a lovely spot full of signs of the season on the type of day I long for on the cold, short winter days.

May is spring’s promise

After a long series of a bright, clear and sunny days, I arrive in the valley under low cloud and while it’s still warm, mugginess has moved in. The strength of the sun has transformed the scenery over the last few weeks with most trees now fully out in leaf but still with the fresh bright green of spring. The bracken and ferns are starting to unfurl their fronds under the cover of the old oak tree wood, beginning to shade out the fading blue bell carpet.

Away from the trees, buttercups have spread out amongst the grass, now growing fast, spurred on by the strong sun. At the edge of the drying ditches the yellow irises have suddenly bloomed while the white of the hawthorn blossom stands out from the hedge lines around the fields. 

Lambs in the riverside meadows are weaning but still run to their mothers to suckle, roughly butting her skywards from beneath with some running off to escape their over demanding offspring. In amongst the sheep, white butterflies haphazardly fly over the fields, pausing on the flowers before heading onto the next. 

The birds are subdued by the warmth of the day and a little quieter with many now on nests. There remain many calling in the woods and fields; siskin, chaffinch, blue tit, blackbird, thrush, chiffchaff and willow warbler. The wagtails strut amongst the stands of rush and a pheasant breaks from a hidden spot in the undergrowth. A cuckoo calls in the distance but perhaps now less powerfully and with long breaks in its monotonous routine. Swallows have returned and skim low over the fields after the insects emerging under the sun.

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The river is low, perhaps as low as I’ve seen it. The summer-like weather of the last few weeks has  reduced its flow and the level has dropped, revealing some of the rocks at the ford. The plants in the water are growing as fast as those on the land and with less space than they had, they are spreading low across the bed. Small shoals of fish dart from cover to cover, hiding from the keen eyes of the kingfisher. 

As my stay progresses the sun breaks out from behind the cloud and the heat begins to build across the fields, river and woodland. The haze remains but the brightness almost hurts my eyes. The wind has been there all the while and now it masks the strength of the rays coming down from above. I move back under cover and the cool offered by the big oak trees by the gate.

In the nest standing high above the meadowland, the waiting is coming to an end. The first of the three large speckled eggs has hatched and new life has arrived in the security of the bowl. Perhaps it will only be three more days until all of the chicks will have broken out. The parents are starting their tireless summer; the male bringing the fish and the female passing small piece by small piece to the chicks.

May is the fulfilment of spring’s promise, the dream of those long dark winter days and nights. I really have come to love the spring; for some reason I always used to prefer the autumn but my tastes have changed and I long for days like today. Of all the months, May must be the finest with spring in its prime and all the migrant birds having arrived back. To me, it is now the point when the transformation from winter to summer is complete, where the trees are all out in leaf and it’s almost possible to forget what they looked like when bare of green. It’s also the point when there’s still so much more to come; the heights of the summer are on their way and the new life has yet to be at its greatest. 

The osprey season is also well on its way with the first of the egg hatched and the other two not far behind. It’s been a fairly serene season so far this year; yes they were a little delayed in their return but they have settled in well. They do have all their hard work yet to come and the next three months will challenge them as usual but so far so good.

Today was a quiet one at Protection, both ospreys spending most of the day at the nest with only one fishing foray later in the afternoon. The greatest activity came with several dog fights with the local crows, both ospreys taking turns to chase them off talon-first.