Winter approaches the Glaslyn Valley

A familiar route once again but the first time in over a season’s length. I turn through the narrow gateway and over the cattle grid. The trees start to enclose as I make my way down through the wood once more. The winding, rising and dipping track has a new surface of fallen leaves and small twigs as autumn comes to a close. The summer shade has melted away and left naked, bent and twisted branches reaching out and interlocking over the narrow way. The vibrant green of the earlier months has gone and there is a new richness to the scene with the rusting bracken providing a foundation to the ambers, oranges and reds in the trees. However, the colours of the peak of a bright effervescent autumn are fading to the last drops of the season. Out on the wet meadows, with decaying dampness in the air, the dark, brooding clouds are letting a few drops of fine rain fall onto the ground as I approach the gate, crossing the grass that now has a touch of yellow. The site is almost silent now and would be but for a few calls of a chaffinch and a light breeze in the woods. The tops of the surrounding hills and mountains are covered in low mist, partly shrouding their purple-hinted rises. In the distance, what must be out above the sea, the suppressing clouds are parting and a brighter light is beginning to emerge but I have to leave and won’t see the land under a more vibrant autumn sun. Across the river and the low field, there stands a tree empty of the summer’s focus. Now long gone, it is like the family was never here but the nest lies up there, without its owners but ready for their return, just marking time through the long, cold and dark winter months.


Well, I lied in a post back in July, that I wouldn’t see that old track again until next spring. I just had to go back; to see the valley at another time, a quieter time, a more sombre and more moody time. The Glaslyn Valley is so different from the height of the summer but just as beautiful and it’s a pity I couldn’t make a visit at the height of the autumn colours. The life in the valley was certainly of the season with jays calling from the woods, ravens cronking as they drifted across the sky and redwings ‘seeeeping’ on their journey through. The only fresh signs of life were new blooms on the gorse, while all other flowers have long gone from the fields, woods and field margins.


After blogging over the spring and summer, I wanted to make a visit to the valley in the autumn or winter, so I could see and show how it changes through the colder months and seasons. With a meeting for public interest company that runs the osprey project planned for yesterday, a trip across had a dual purpose – to see the valley when the ospreys aren’t there and to keep up to date on plans for next year.

The meeting highlighted just how much great work the company and its volunteers have done over the past year and revealed some very promising plans for next. In all, over the last 12 months, nearly 5,500 volunteer hours have been put into running the project, from re-establishing both the viewing and protection sites, to all the hours put in watching over the nest and showing visitors views of the ospreys. Almost starting from scratch, it is simply amazing what this small group of volunteers has achieved over the past 12 months. Taking over the running of the project from a huge national charity was a daunting task and I’m sure others would have failed, and yes, there have been difficulties on the way. However, they have achieved what they have set out to do and now have plans to build on this and make next year even greater. There are proposals for a new visitor centre which should be open seven days per week during the breeding season, and the nest will be protected 24 hours a day while the risk to the ospreys, their eggs and eventually their chick persist.

Next year, they will need even more volunteers and more volunteer hours to ensure success, and yes, I will be back, hopefully doing some night shifts and maybe there might be a few blog posts too!

British public transport drivers’ new uniform…

If the Argies must have signs on all their public transport claiming that the Falklands are Argentinian, this should be the new national uniform of all British bus and train drivers (for one day at least)… IMG_5030 …and on a related matter, if the Argentinians are going to be childish, why are we allowing their national football team to play two friendlies in England?

Falkland Islands – Wildlife: It’s not all penguins!!!

Today, I hope, the Falklands are becoming more famous for the wildlife than the war; they certainly deserve to be. I’m sure to many people the Islands are an unknown, or known for only what happened back in the early 1980s. The Falklands are so much more than that and the spectacular wildlife is just the tip of the iceberg, but a good place to start.

Whilst I seem to spend much of my time looking at, counting and protecting birds, I’m actually more interested in mammals and the Falklands has some good ones to take an interest it. However, like the birds on and around the Islands, the mammals are relatively few in species but big on numbers. While there I saw elephant seals, sea lions, Commerson’s dolphins, orca and possibly a fur seal; all these were new to me (in the flesh at least) and I spent hours watching them. There were also plenty of brown hares in and around Darwin where I stayed for the first night, but these are an introduced species and occasionally seen around where I live.

The elephant seals were a great sight, lying out on the beaches of Carcass and Sea Lion Islands. They seemed to spend most of the day lazing around in the sun, particularly the females and youngsters. The males, despite their huge size, were generally more active, with the ‘beachmasters’ frequently having to chase of the other males trying to sneak into their harems and have their way with the females. The sight of the males fighting is not for the feint hearted and nor is the view of the males forcing themselves on the local ladies, with the young ones still hanging around close by and occasionally getting crushed underneath the heavyweights.


The sea lions were fewer in number and I only saw large numbers on Bleaker Island, with the occasional one or two on Carcass and Sea Lion Islands. Standing in the tussock grass at the top of a shallow cliff on Bleaker, I spent a good while watching a group of fifty relaxing on the flat rocks at the cliff base. There was one huge, aristocratic looking male patrolling around his own group of females with the occasional potential challenger appearing and quickly hopping off again before the big guy caught sight of them.


Tussock grass is not the safest place to stand looking at sea lions, even at the top of a cliff, as the seals can easily climb up unnoticed to spend time in the shelter of the big stands of grass, and indeed, I did stumble upon one or two. Fortunately, I didn’t come face-to-face with a big old male as they have a fair turn of speed and I wouldn’t want to be caught by one. I eventually moved on and sat in a more open area overlooking a small bay and watched a mixed group playing in the waves. I got a good view of two males fighting; firstly sizing each other up on the rocks and then chasing into the water, scrapping around in the surging waves.


I saw Commerson’s dolphins three times on my trip; the second time there were a couple riding the bow wave of the boat on the way between West Point and Carcass Islands; a really nice end to a day, on a calmer crossing than in the morning going the other way. The first and third sightings were groups surfing the big waves crashing into beaches on Pebble and Saunders Island. On Pebble, the view was fleeting but on Saunders I stood watching them for ages with up to twenty playing just off the coast.


The best mammal sighting, and perhaps the wildlife highlight of my trip, was of two pods of orca (killer whale) off the coasts of Sea Lion Island. Throughout my trip, talking to people who had already been to the island, I was told that orca were there, but being a pessimist, I expected them to have pushed off by the time I turned up. How wrong was I? The first afternoon I spent several hours watching one pod of four patrol up and down the shoreline, trying to snatch an unaware elephant seal in the water. The following morning, I watched a group of five in the same place, with some coming into a small pool only a few metres from the water’s edge. There was a large group of southern giant petrels (more about them later) waiting further out from the coast to snatch anything remaining from a kill and periodically they would all suddenly lift and descend on an area around the orca but usually returned empty handed. The following afternoon and evening I spent more time watching the orca and saw two pods, one on each side of the island. It was quite incredible to learn that they had been focussing their attentions on the big male elephant seals, the big bullies of the beaches, and had taken quite a few over the preceding few days. The males on the edge of the groups (like the one in the picture below) often looked nervously out to sea, checking if the orca were out their lurking in wait. In all the time I spent watching them, I didn’t see a kill, or at least not of anything big. I think a penguin or two may have been taken as a light snack with the petrels quickly clearing up any leftovers but it would have been quite something to see the orca take a fully grown male elephant seal.


The orca sighting actually ticked another item off my bucket list; so two down, quite a few more to go!


Bird surveys start again…

Yesterday I started another round of bird surveys for Cheshire Wildlife Trust. Following the Winter Bird Surveys (WBS) and Breeding Bird Surveys (BBS) I completed for both the Bagmere and Blakenhall Moss reserves earlier this year, it’s now time to start the winter surveys again.

The WBS is much simpler than the BBS undertaken in the spring of each year. The former involve walking the same fixed route but only the species and number of individual birds are recorded. The BBS requires the noting of behaviour to assess whether each recorded species is indeed breeding on a particular site. In addition, the winter surveys can be done at any time during a day, but it should be dry and with little wind.

The winter surveys are undertaken on two separate visits, one in November/December and the other in January/February. Whilst only two visits are required in total for each site, if I get time I will hopefully be able to do four, one in each month. Very little data has been collected on birds at the Bagmere and Blakenhall Moss sites; essentially data is limited to that collected through the surveys I have undertaken this year. Therefore, I hope a little extra effort will help to build up a greater depth of information and therefore understanding of birds at the two sites.


I started the November/December surveys with a visit to the Trust’s Bagmere reserve. It was a very clear day with bright blue skies and almost no wind – after being in the Falklands for most of the last three weeks, having so little wind was very different to what I have become used to! There was clearly been a lot of rain while I was away as the site was more wet than I can remember it being over the three years or so I have been visiting.

After a rather quiet start to the survey with very little activity, the number of species started to pick up and I ended with a half-descent list. In fact, I noted more species than either of the two visits last winter and only one short of the combined total for those visits. However, of the 21 species recorded, five were flying over rather than being present on the site. The species recorded included: blackbird, black-head gull, blue tit, bullfinch, carrion crow, chaffinch, great tit, jay, linnet, magpie, mallard, moorhen, pheasant, pied wagtail, redwing, robin, song thrush, starling, water rail, woodpigeon and wren.

Of those listed, the most interesting is the water rail which is a local rarity. While I recorded it during the BBS visits to the site earlier this year, it didn’t appear during the last winter surveys. However, it was disappointing not to record willow tit at the site as it was recorded at Bagmere during the BBS and has been noted on a number of visits I have made to the site while working with Crewe & Nantwich Conservation Volunteers (CNCV). The willow tit is also a local rarity and has declined in population nationally by 80% over the last 20 years. Furthermore, this was the only Cheshire Wildlife Trust site to record this species during the last round of WBSs. Hopefully, with more visits to be made to the site over the course of the winter, including with CNCV, I’ll be able to record its presence.


As usual, it was a lovely way to spend a spare hour – wandering quietly around the countryside, immersing myself in the sounds and sights of my surroundings, although as it is approaching the end of the year, the sounds are nothing like the cacophony I listen to during the early morning Breeding Bird Surveys.

Falkland Islands – Visiting the Battlefields

The Falklands War is the primary reason why I have wanted to visit the Islands for so long. In my mid-teens, a TV program to mark the tenth anniversary of the war sparked an interest in me that has lasted ever since. Whilst my interests have expanded and my visit also served my interests in wildlife, landscapes and photography, learning more about events in 1982 were a priority.

I had three tours around some of the battlefields and other sites while in the Falklands. What instantly struck me was how fresh the signs of war still are, even 32 years later. The positions constructed by troops I saw could have been created just a few years ago and the wreckage of the shot down Argentine Dagger aircraft on Pebble Island (the pilot of which survived) looks barely touched by the three decades of Falklands weather.


The battlefields are still strewn with the debris and detritus of war, with some large items remaining including some weapons (e.g. the recoilless rifle on Mount Longdon and all now well beyond use), while many smaller items lie all around and hidden in the ground including blankets, boots, personal kit and spent, and unspent, ammunition. Of course there are also the much larger remnants of the war which cannot be seen, those below the surface of the surrounding sea. Six British ships from the war lie in the waters surrounding the islands and seeing the buoy marking the final resting place of HMS Antelope, in San Carlos Water, really moved me – lying in such dark, cold, rough and wind blown waters, so far from home.

The Falklands are perhaps infamous for having uncleared minefields spread around the islands. Yes, they are there; I saw them around Goose Green and in the mountains close to Stanley and on the beaches around the capital. However, there are vast swathes of the islands, the majority in fact, left untouched by the war.

I was struck by the beauty of the cemeteries and monuments and their surroundings. Perhaps it was the good weather and I’m sure they will look and feel very different in the midst of a winter storm, but they are all in settings that give beautiful backdrops and fitting stages for those who gave all for the freedom of the islanders to decide their own future.


At every cemetery or monument I visited, I made a point of reading every name, Argentine or British. Whilst it is easy to look for the most famous or most decorated names amongst those listed, for me it is important to notice all of them no matter what service, what rank or what age. Unfortunately, I didn’t get time to visit the one main Argentine cemetery, which is near to Darwin, but I did spend a short time at the small memorial on Pebble Island which marks the spot where a shot down Argentine Learjet crashed.

By chance rather than design, I visited the battlefields of Mount Longdon and Mount Harriet on Remembrance Sunday, and I marked the two-minute silence at the memorial on Longdon. After reading so much about the battle for Longdon, it was slightly unreal to spend time there; something I’ve wanted to do for a very long time. Having seen pictures and maps of the place and the battle, it was very familiar but seeing the signs of war still very much in evidence was both surprising and poignant.

Of the land battles in 1982, I have read most about those fought by the Parachute Regiment and I have read comparatively little about the battles fought by the Royal Marines including that for Mount Harriet. Harriet seems even more of an impenetrable fortress than Longdon and I found it almost unbelievable that there were, thankfully, comparatively few British losses in taking the mountain (one soldier was killed by artillery fire on the approach to the battle while a second was shot when trying to take the surrender of some Argentines when one soldier changed his mind).


I found that there remain some strong feelings amongst the islanders towards the nation only 250 miles to the west. Some of these feelings are clearly lasting from memories of the actions over 30 years ago now, while some relate more to the current and the difficulties that the islanders have in living so close to a still hostile neighbour and the actions being taken by the Argentine government to isolate the Islands.

The military are still very much in evidence now, not least to visitors arriving at Mount Pleasant Airbase, using the Air Bridge between the Islands and RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire. In my travels I frequently saw movements by helicopter, was flown over by two RAF Typhoons and a Hercules and even had my own ‘HMS’ moored offshore for the night when at Bleaker Island. It is clear that the islanders are very grateful to the military, not only for their actions and sacrifice in 1982, but also to the ongoing security they provide.

However, not all the locals seem happy to see the military. Gentoo penguins really don’t like helicopters and go running off in a mad panic each time one comes close. This seems particularly odd when they see them very frequently, but they do trudge back to where they started as soon as the big noisy thing goes away – only to run off again when the next one comes (they must have the memories not much greater than their main foodstuff!).

I have cared about the plight of the islands for a long time, even though I have no strong connections with them. It therefore came as a bit of a surprise to me that for a moment during my visit, while flying over the vast, empty areas of West Falkland, I did question whether they are worth protecting and, if necessary, fighting for again. However, this was a very short-lived moment of questioning.

For me the most important factor is the presence of the Islanders themselves. They own the islands, their home, just as much as I own the land (albeit very small) under my home. The Islanders are as British as I am and the vast majority have British roots going back many generations (just as I do) and have, in fact, more shared history with mainland UK than many people living here now. To me, the Islands may be far away, at the end of a long line of communication, but they are as British as any group of Islands within the British Isles and deserve to be protected, and have the right to be, from any hostile action (whether military, economic or diplomatic) from their near neighbour and its supporters.

Having been to the battlefields and talked to islanders, this visit has very much renewed my interest in what happened in 1982. However, more than that, my support for the right of the Islands to remain a Crown Dependency has also increased and I need to give some thought to how I can do more to show that support (in whatever small way I can).


(I would like to thank Tony Smith for guiding me around the Mount Longdon and Mount Harriet battlefields – he is an excellent guide with an incredible knowledge of the battles and insight into what actually happened in 1982. He can speak not only from first hand experience from an islander’s point of view but has also spoken to many veterans, both junior and senior and from both sides. He clearly has a passion for sharing knowledge of the war and he does so both enthusiastically and with great sensitivity).

Falkland Islands – The First Week

Blogging is actually even harder than I thought it would be in the Falklands. I knew internet connection would be poor but it’s actually the amount of time I have (or don’t have to be precise) which is hindering my blogging. I would love to have put up a post every day but each one is so full and I go to bed so tired that I just don’t have the time or reserves of energy. Anyway, I’ve decided to blog properly when I get home but thought I would provide a couple (or so) of updates before I have to leave the islands.

Since arriving last Tuesday afternoon the days have been hectic and I have so far stayed in five different places; Darwin, Pebble Island, Carcass Island and Saunders Island. I’m now on Bleaker Island to the south east of the archipelago. Travelling has been interesting and exciting, with flights between places being on small, eight-seater Britton-Norman Islanders – the workhorse of the Falkland Island Government Air Service. These little planes give a very different perspective on the islands including just how big and rugged they are. I’ve also had a boat trip out to West Point Island which was very rough on the way out, making a few of the passengers just a little ill (not me of course!), but less so on the way back with the wind behind us and the waves actually overtaking the boat. We were joined and entertained by a couple of dolphins riding the bow wave.IMG_0598Each place I’ve stayed has provided something different, from the battlefields at Darwin and the memorials, war wreckage and old buildings at Pebble Island to the hill walking and elephant seals at Carcass Island and seabird cliffs, large sandy beaches and wind-formed rocky mountain tops of Saunders Island.

At each place, the wildlife has been spectacular but, so far, it is the outlying islands that have proven to be true natural havens with birdlife in abundance.  The mammals aren’t too bad either, with elephant seals, sea lions and Commerson’s dolphins all seen so far – and there may even be killer whales before I go home!

The weather so far has been well above expectations and certainly variable. With the exception of the last couple of days, the weather has been changeable in the extreme. On Carcass Island, I was taking shots of an almost tropical-like paradise one minute with snow coming down the next. On the same day, I was treated to near blizzard conditions but within a short period the sun came out burned it all off. Even the wind hasn’t been constantly strong and I’ve even experienced cloudless skies, which appear to be very rare in these parts.

The people I’ve met have made a real difference to my trip and everyone has a story to tell or an interest in asking about others. It’s certainly a small community down here with everyone knowing everyone else but there are also many people from overseas and I have already met Americans, Australians, Germans and Chileans.

That’s all for now!