Nature can stir the soul

Today, I made the first of my usual autumnal pilgrimages to the Wildfowl and Wetland Trust’s (WWT) Martin Mere reserve near Ormskirk, Lancashire. I have been there so many times that I have long lost count. I return there every year in late September or early October to witness what is, for me, a true wildlife spectacle to rival many better known natural sights.

As autumn begins to grow in its seasonal beauty, the winter visitors to our shores start to arrive. Amongst the many different species to spend the colder northern hemisphere months in the British Isles, there is one that really connects with me – the Pink-footed Goose.


These smaller geese, more petite than their canada or greylag cousins, breed just below the arctic circle, in Iceland. Only a few weeks after hatching, the goslings follow their parents from their early homes and fly across the north Atlantic all the way to our small islands. Around 240,000 pink-feet winter here, usually spending much of their time on the east coast but they use Lancashire as a first major staging post, with many thousands resting there before heading on their way further east.

I find the sounds of these geese have a soul-splitting ability. A single calling pink-foot, perhaps the lead of a small skein flying over an otherwise silent salt marsh, ‘wink-wink, wink-wink, wink-wink’, seems to be one of the loneliest and wildly remote sounds of nature. It brings visions of the wide open valleys of Iceland, and of the long struggle between their birthplace and their wintering fields here in the UK. Counter to that is the combined stirring chorus of a many thousand strong flock taking to the air in a mass force of nature. This is an invigorating, breathtaking and heart-pounding moment, a wave of noise as the flock erupts from the ground, turning the immediate sky into a flickering darkness, then splitting to form swirling clouds of avian purpose.

Three springs ago, I made a trip to Iceland with the aim, amongst other things, to see the breeding grounds of the pink-feet. I had seen them so many times in the autumn and winter, in Lancashire and in Norfolk, that I felt a great need to see them at the other end of their journey, in their other home. Feeling particularly sentimental at the time, I wrote the following:

“We drive through the high mountain passes, with small villages and scattered farms. The tall rock faces supported by brown scrub and green pasture. Out onto the valley bottom, the river flattens its course and man-made obstructions claim some of the plain. Out of shelter in the vehicle, the wind whips past and roars through the valley. Rolling clouds of sand and dust maraud across the plain, making eyes dry and scratched.

This is where they are, in small groups and pairs, preparing to nest after the long struggle north. Their colour now matching the surrounding ground. They are quiet here, now only an occasional call; not the great waves of noise from their winter glories.

Not as imagined; they are not alone here, amongst the farmland, fences and roads. Not as wild as thought but still more wild than most. A sense of seeing their other home; their real home. A sense of seeing it all, from journey start and journey finish.”

Today, there were over 20,000 pinkies at Martin Mere, a true spectacular in both sight and sound. The WWT website for the reserve has a sunset video that gives something of the emotional experience – but you have to be there to really feel it.

WWT Website

Hard work and dedication don’t guarantee happy endings…

A few posts ago, I was celebrating the fact that a chick from the first year I helped to protect the Glaslyn osprey nest (2012) had successfully returned to the UK for the first time. It was, for me, a reason to be very happy and proud that I had played a small part in helping this to happen – many others, and the osprey itself of course, can take much more credit!

However, this joy has now been tempered somewhat.

On one protection shift this year, I took along a friend, Jack (fellow wildlife enthusiast, womble tsar, long range cyclist, unstoppable camera-trapper and very poor whisky drinker), to show him what we do. He seemed to enjoy himself and hopefully will come along again next year.

Over the course of the summer, Jack got a job with the RSPB on their (now award-winning) Skydancer project doing the same role that the volunteers undertake at Glaslyn, but for hen harriers rather than ospreys. Based in the Forest of Bowland in north Lancashire, Jack spent many nights watching over a hen harrier nest from within a hide. Whilst there, Jack got some great views of wildlife in general as well as the hen harriers themselves. Unfortunately not all of the locals were friendly and many a night was spent fending off the unwanted advances of overly insistent midges (an experience I know all too well!).

In England, hen harriers are even rarer than their fish-eating cousin raptors and no pairs successfully bred in the country at all last year. So it was with some relief that three nests managed to fledge chicks this summer (two nests in Bowland and one in the Lakes). However, it was with great sadness and extreme anger that I heard today that two chicks from the Bowland nests have disappeared. They were fitted with trackers, which have both now fallen silent. The trackers are very reliable and it is highly unlikely that one of them, let alone both, will have failed whilst the birds were still alive. The most likely explanation is that both birds have been killed and probably at the hands of man. Whether this can be blamed on their nemesis, the gamekeeper, we may never know, but if I were a betting man…

It just goes to show that the collective will of many does not always overcome the selfishness of a few.  It also shows that the hard work of species protection teams is still of importance in the fight against our fellow humans who will not let a little thing like legal protection get in the way of their destructive hobbies.

IMG_6427.1 I don’t often see hen harriers (obviously, I suppose) but when I do, it’s usually pretty memorable.  No other sighting I’ve had, however, can beat seeing a male harrier mobbing a wolf; and I even got a snap! In the photo above, the wolf is in the centre, on the track, while the light-coloured spot above and to the left is the harrier (it is, honest – they were at least a mile away after all!)

An end to a warm autumn day

It certainly has been an unusual start to the season with the weather still in summer mode.  Many of the autumn signs are there, and have been for some time; the changing of the leaves, the darkening of the evenings and the cooling of the mornings.  Yet the days are warm and I’m still seeing the last few swallows and house martins around.

I went for another of my increasingly regular wanders around Wybunbury Moss a couple of days ago.  The wood at the edge of the Moss was quiet, with most of the summer migrants gone, and it took a took a lot longer to notice a good handful of birds amongst the trees or flying over.  There were roving mixed tit flocks passing from cover to cover, a sure sign that the breeding season is over, but I was also still seeing dragonflies over the open Moss – summer remains. The trees around the Moss are certainly changing colour; in fact one or two are almost bare already, while others seem to be in their high summer prime.

Wandering back to the open fields, I got a rarely seen view of a green woodpecker being chased by a sparrowhawk.  I hear woodpeckers at the Moss quite regularly but they are usually great spotted. I hear the greens only a couple of times a year and probably only see one once a year.  The woodpecker was yaffling away as is sprinted low across the Moss, while the hawk didn’t seem all that intent on catching its quarry, as it glided behind.  I’ve had some nice sights at the Moss over the last year or so but its often the case that you have to spend a lot of time at a location to get that kind of glimpse of wildlife.

As dusk started to fall and I walked up the slope towards the church tower, out of the bowl-like depression in which the Moss sits, I could feel the temperature increasing; there had certainly been a nip in the air open fields.  The bowl was acting as a sink, with the cooling air flowing downwards into the lower lying ground and what remained of the day’s warmth, was rising upwards with me.

Driving away, I got a glimpse of the sunset over Wybunbury, the church tower standing out in silhouette. The last of the sun’s rays were still warm but the air flowing in through the open car window was cooling by the minute. 2

GUEST BLOG: An Arctic Affair by Ali Bagley

An Arctic Affair…That’s what the brochure called our adventure, which was in reality a two week cruise up Norway to Svalbard, an island group where-in lies the most northerly settlement in the world, less of an affair than a breath-taking foray to the top of the world.

Dilemma number one, what to pack? It’s July, going to be warm in southern Norway but Svalbard, approx. 600 miles from the North Pole, might be somewhat chillier. Luggage limit 23kgs each, it was difficult, but we managed it, packing everything from swimsuits to jumpers, beach wraps to waterproofs and flip flops to hiking boots.

20140722_140345We boarded in Newcastle, headed straight for the bar and immediately relaxed. We had been on this ship, the Thompson Spirit, last year and so didn’t need to do the obligatory orientation walk. The rest of that day was the sail away, dinner, and unpacking, drinking and general merriment.

I have to say, the major joy of a cruise is in not having to pack and unpack every time you go somewhere new, your hotel room goes with you to all your destinations!

We had nine stops ahead of us on this trip but a day at sea first to get properly into the holiday mood. Having the all-inclusive drinks package was going to be a major factor in this endeavour.

The first stop was a quick drop off for trippers in Hellesylt but we stayed on board for the sail through the Fjords to collect the trippers from Geiranger. Not only did we pass through magnificent scenery, on a glorious summer day, but we passed the Seven Sisters waterfall, fairly sedate in July but must be a sight to behold in spring when the melting snow is rushing down the mountain sides.

Sailing back out of the fjords on our way to our next port of call we took in yet more glorious views, all accompanied by classical music belting from the ships speakers, a truly magical experience.


And then we crossed into the Arctic Circle.

More eating, drinking, shows, quizzes, meeting new people and general fun stuff that evening (and every evening) but that evening we had our first, and forever memorable experience, of the land of the midnight sun.

We came out onto the deck at 1am in the morning to such an incredible sight, colours I’d never seen before, shimmering silvers, pinks and blues, lit by the sun hovering just above the horizon.


It was simply magical, like being on the road to heaven.

20140716_002248We just didn’t want to go to bed and miss any of this but we had more nights ahead.

Our next stop was in Tromso, known as the ‘Gateway to the Arctic’. A large city which has seen the start of many polar expeditions, including that of Roald Amundsen, Norway’s most famous arctic adventurer.

We took the tour going to the Northern Lights science museum, as you don’t see the real thing when the sun doesn’t go down. The film was shown in the planetarium, where you recline and watch it on the domed ceiling, and as it had all been filmed in and around Tromso we got a great idea of how phenomenal the Northern Lights are. Note to self, book a trip to Iceland in January!

The trip also did a bit of a scenic half hour around the city, the most notable view being the sight of a reindeer walking along the pavement, they run free here apparently.

We had also seen whales swimming along by the side of the ship but the pesky buggers were not happy to be photographed, hence this blurred zoomed in effort that was the best I could get.


Over the next couple of days we were at sea and made a last mainland Norway stop at Honningsvag, the home of the Northern Cape. More amazing scenery, still in delightfully warm summer weather, but we were anxious to get to the main event, Svalbard and the northernmost settlement in the world, Ny-Alesund.


We arrived on Sunday morning, the drop in temperature from mid-twenties to six degrees most notable. This is a bleak and barren place, snow on the mountains even in July and this settlement, with only 30 permanent residents, is in darkness for the best part of eight months of the year.

Ny-Alesund is in effect a hodgepodge of outbuildings, used for scientific research on global warming, arctic flora and fauna and other geographic sciency stuff. We had a walk around the settlement, phones had to be turned off, stick to the paths, don’t talk to polar bears, that sort of thing. We didn’t actually see any polar bears but on Svalbard they significantly outnumber people.
I did get dive bombed by an Arctic Tern when I got too close to her nest, we got soaked in the driving sleet but by golly it was a wonderful day.


The sail from Ny-Alesund took us into the Magdelena Fjord that evening. This is simply stunning, even in fog and damp weather the sight of the glaciers climbing over and down the mountains was amazing. These monsters were hundreds of feet high and had been moving through the land for millions of years. It’s hard to take in the magnitude of this wonder of nature and even harder to get a picture that truly puts them into perspective.


20140719_195030Next day found us in Longyearbyen, the largest town on Svalbard and home to the Svalbard museum and Camp Barentz.
We joined the tour, there aren’t any taxi’s here so going it alone which we normally do wasn’t possible. First stop Camp Barentz, a tourist spot in the middle of nowhere which has a replica of an explorers hut, a wigwam type structure (where we found caramel cheese waffles – delicious) and most importantly, a husky farm. I was in my element. These are real working dogs but they are so used to humans, and are handled from very early that they get very excited when we arrive. These aren’t the fluffy domesticated husky back home, these are dirty, moulting and live in wooden boxes but they were so friendly and lovable. I even got to hold a puppy – fantastic.


We then went to the museum, which houses various stuffed examples of the wildlife and a bit of history about all the polar expeditions that have gone from the island.

Another day at sea, chilly but bright before stops in Bronnysund and Leknes, where I stayed on the ship sunbathing because honestly there’s only so many Norwegian towns you can visit before you realise they are pretty much all the same!

Our penultimate stop was in Alysund, interesting because the whole place burnt down in 1904 and was rebuilt art deco style in just six years. We took the local mini train up into the mountains to see the town from above, it’s very Disney medieval village styly from up the top but great views.

20140724_114135Our last port of call was the truly stunning Flam, a town which sits at the end of a Fjord and from which you can get a train up through the mountains (which obviously was what we did). There are a load of wonderful pictures from that train journey, here are a few . . .




And then it was home again, so I will leave you with a final sunset and a recommendation to get there if you can because the sights and experiences of this trip will stay with you for a lifetime.


The melancholic tune of autumn…

As I stepped out of my porch this morning, with the dawn still to come, I was struck by a sound coming from the tree across the road. The sad, wistful notes came from an unseen bird, standing on a branch or twig amongst the foliage. The tune came again as I left the office for the day but this time there were two calling from within the bushes, perched some way apart.

After hearing very little bird song over the past few weeks, with the post-breeding moult keeping the birds quiet, the calls stood out from the background noise.

The calls came from robins.

Embed from Getty Images

The robin is unusual in that it sings almost throughout the year – the moult being the only time it remains quiet for any length of time. The singing enables the robin to keep its territory across the seasons but the song changes and is in two distinct phases. As breeding approaches, the song is more powerful, purposeful and bright, attracting a mate to the ground above which it stands protector. However, after it has refreshed from a hectic breeding season and the autumn proceeds, the song changes to more melancholic notes, as if saddened by the end of another year approaching.

After spending so much time listening to bird songs and calls during the breeding bird surveys this year, the quietness that the moult brought was quite startling and I noticed it more than ever before. The autumn call of the robin, however, has lifted the silence and has opened my ears to a whole new season of sound. It won’t be long until the some of my days are filled with the sounds of wintering geese and swans, and the dusk is accompanied by the alarm calls of blackbirds as the darkness of the lengthening nights envelope the land.