An Era’s End and Two False Starts

Just like two weeks ago, I wake on a day more dull and grey than the previous few, the weekday summer turned into weekend winter. The rain falls lightly as I head out, the roads turning more wet by the minute. Despite the chilly dampness of the early morning, spring is in full flow and even as I head across the border into Wales and up into the hills, the signs show no doubt that the season is here. However, the weather turns for the worse as I head onwards and higher, the clouds close in further, enveloping the road; surely I’ve just driven out of April and into December?

Dropping down into the Glaslyn Valley, below the cloud base, spring reappears, even if it is trapped beneath a dark, brooding grey cloak. As I turn onto that wooded track, I’m met by fresh, renewing life, the past two weeks have given time for a transformation. The landscape has a growing richness as if a giant has thinly draped sheets of green tissue paper over the hills and fields. The trees all around are breaking out into leaf, the grass has a new richness and the bracken is starting to unfurl. Under the canopy, the bluebells are breaking out their blooms and even the irises and foxgloves have begun their growth. In through the car windows comes a woodland chorus of song, now given greater dimensions by the arrival of the summer migrants. The wrens, robins, great tits and song thrushes have now been joined by the chiffchaffs and redstarts, with the willow warblers giving more voice than most. Out into the open amongst the wet meadows, the wind has an edge, adding a bit of extra sharpness to the chill in the air. This may be a day to stay in the ‘warmth’ and shelter of the caravan. However, I leave the door open, away from the wind, to allow the sounds of the valley to flow inside.

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My blog post after my last protection shift wondered whether my next visit would see a male at the nest or any ospreys at all. Well, when I arrived, the nest would have been totally empty had it not been for the broken eggshell lying discarded to one side. There was no sign of the Glaslyn female or male nor of either of her two recent suitors. Over the past two weeks, it has become clear that the male osprey (11/98) who has been paired with the female since 2004 will not be returning this year. His fate is very unlikely ever to be known and all manner of things could have stopped him from returning. Despite the sadness that he has not returned, there has been some hope for successful breeding this season with two males showing keen interest in the female.

The first to make concerted effort to pair with the Glaslyn female was CU2, born in Dumfries in 2012. He arrived at the nest on the 15th April and over the course of a couple of days tried to mate with the her, however, on the 17th another osprey appeared at the nest. This second male was Blue 80, a Glaslyn-born chick from 2012 and the son of the Glaslyn female – a fledgling from the first brood I helped to protect! He immediately took ‘possession’ of the nest and on 20th, after mating with Blue 80 several times, the female laid her first egg of the year. By the following day, the egg had been lost in the nest and CU2 was back with the female and Blue 80 nowhere to be seen. On 25th (yesterday), a second egg was laid but unfortunately was soon broken, while at the time of posting, CU2 hasn’t been seen since 24th.

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The female arrived at the nest at 12:40 this afternoon with a flounder in her talons. For a moment she appeared to have lost it as she was chased off her perch by the local crows but she soon returned, and still with her fish.

There has been a lot of discussion about the possible pairing of the Glaslyn female with her son and whilst is does seem odd to us humans, it is perfectly natural in ospreys – here’s a link to a great piece written on the subject by Emyr at the Dyfi Osprey Project.

During the day, other birds kept me entertained too and not least the ravens and crows around the protection site. There seemed to be ongoing antagonism between the two species throughout my shift with the ravens frequently floating past, cronking loudly, and pursued by a band of angry crows. I also watched the newly-returned swallows as they made their jinking flights over the fields, their passes getting gradually lower as the rain forced the insects towards the ground.

In the afternoon, as the wind picked up and the rain became heavier, I closed the caravan door and tried to keep warm – it became decidedly cold inside. The weather we have had this week lulled me into thinking I didn’t need to dress warmly for a shift; next time I’ll take my woolly hat and sleeping bag!

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With the female still alone when I finished my shift today, it looks like she may be starting her lonely vigil once again. This time I will only have to wait a week for another stint down at protection and to see whether she will continue to have to wait for a new partner.

Manchester Buildings?

Buildings aren’t my usual blogging subjects but I’ve posted a few images of Manchester city centre over the past few weeks. Yes, I’ve had a slight obsession with the Town Hall at times, especially when it is lit up or when the Chinese New Year decorations were up, but I normally focus on more wildlifey-type things.

I’ve got a bit of an interest in architecture and I even had some training in architectural appreciation as part of my degree (some time ago, I admit), and I think I have an eye for a nice building (and the not so nice!).

But why am I posting? Well, just like most people, I tend to rush from place to place on my daily commute, either thinking about the day ahead or just wanting to get home as soon as possible.  In doing so, I’ve missed a lot – it took me ages to realise that much of Manchester city centre is laid out in a grid pattern with small, four or five storey cubes of buildings making up the blocks.  So I’ve been taking more interest in my surroundings of late, as I walk the 15 minutes or so each way between the station and my office, and I’m going to post images of anything I notice.

Manchester, despite its often cold, rainy northernness, is actually a very nice city, and one I’ve come to appreciate a great deal – other UK cities could learn a lot from it.

This is Piccadilly Station this morning…

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Another day, another survey

After yesterday’s lovely spring morning, today was much cooler and cloudier but I still ventured out reasonably early to complete the last of this months bird surveys.  Cheshire Wildlife Trust’s Blakenhall Moss reserve was the focus again and I completed the survey in just over an hour; it may take longer on the last two surveys in May and June as the undergrowth increases in the woodland.

Over the course of this survey and the visit last month, I recorded a total of 39 species; that’s four more than the total over all four Breeding Bird Survey visits last year.  This visit also took the complete bird list for the site to 56 with the addition of shoveler, red-legged partridge and grasshopper warbler.  Both the shoveler and partridge appeared to be in pairs, so are probable breeders on the site.  This is almost certainly the first time breeding on the site for shoveler following the woodland clearance and re-wetting work that has been done over the past couple of years.

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The grasshopper warbler tested me a bit as I have only heard one once before (close to where I leave my car on the mainland when I stay on Ramsey Island) and only when the particular bird was calling in full flow – a constant, long grasshopper-like call.  Just as I was completing the survey I heard a short, three or four second long low trilling coming from some brash but I couldn’t see the creature it was coming from. Several more short bursts came from the undergrowth, moving a couple of times but I still couldn’t get a view.  After waiting quite a while, I left for home and checked the call on xeno-canto bird sounds library, suspecting that it was one of these warblers. I turned out to be right and it seems these summer visitors don’t give their full call when they first arrive, starting off in bursts before building up to the constant insect-like sound.

These birds are red-listed after significant long-term declines in their populations, although more recent times have seen promising increases.  Checking my copy of the brilliant BTO Bird Atlas, the birds are relatively scarce along the Welsh border from south Cheshire all the way down to Gloucesteshire.  Therefore, finding one at Blakenhall, if it stays, could be good news.

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It wasn’t just the birds that were showing well this morning, there were other signs that spring is here.  There were flowering marsh marigolds and the first few bluebells starting to bloom in the woods ringing the Moss and the blackthorn has broken out into blossom in hedgerows across the area.

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A Perfect Spring Morning for a Survey!

I was up early this morning to do the first of two recording visits to my BTO Breeding Bird Survey site out at Bulkeley.  Getting up was a bit of a struggle after what felt like a long week and doing circuit training last night – my aching muscles didn’t really like the early alarm.  However, it was well worth it.

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It was a lovely, bright and quite warm spring morning with a cloudless sky and only the hint of a cooling breeze.   Even before I’d set off on the first of two one kilometre transects, the birds were performing for me with two buzzards soaring above the sandstone ridge of Bulkeley Hill, being mobbed by a raven and carrion crows.  The summer migrants were also quickly in my notes with willow warbler, chiffchaff and blackcap all singing loudly and persistently.  As I made my way into the second section of the first transect, a good flock of 30 jackdaws took flight after feeding in a hillside meadow.

The each transect took around 45 minutes to complete, with frequent stops to make notes and checking the species through my binoculars.  Some sections were quicker than others with fewer species out in the open fields away from the wooded hill. The last section seemed the most intense of all, almost running out of space to make notes at the end.  The birds seemed quite unconcerned about my presence in some places and I had very good views of chiffchaffs and blackcaps – maybe they had other, springlike, things on their minds. Overall, I recorded 29 species, which is just three shy of the total for the two visits last year.

Wandering around the countryside on a beautiful spring morning is a lovely thing to do anyway but doing a bird survey makes it even better.  Listening and watching wildlife immerses me even deeper into the natural surroundings and makes the experience even more intense. While it is sometimes a struggle to get out of bed early at a weekend, it was certainly worth it this morning!

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As I finished the survey I came across two lost scouts, looking confused as they tried to workout where they were on their OS map.  It’s well over 20 years since I took part in the Cheshire Hike; the two-day event these lads were taking part in.  Whilst it might be counted as cheating, I pointed out where they were and guided them in the right direction.    Mapping reading was always a strength of mine when I was a scout but maybe they don’t teach the current generation as well as I was taught as I came across four more lost lads just a little further down the track. I decided I’d done my good deed for the day and left them to work it all out for themselves.

A (not so) Lonely Vigil

After the summer-like weather of the previous few days, the rattling of rain and blustering of wind against my bedroom window stirred me this morning and well before the alarm was meant to. The skies didn’t looking promising as I left the house in the early light and the windscreen wipers were needed as I drove out through the Cheshire countryside.

Across the border and into Wales, the signs of spring are growing in strength and reaching further and higher. The pastures are becoming a fresher and more vibrant shade of green and the roadsides are dotted with clumps of daffodils. The hedge rows are starting to break out their leaves and blossom, and there are young lambs in the fields on rolling hills. The views started to brighten and the rain died away as I continued on, until above Bala the clouds broke into wide blue skies and the land started to dry, helped by the strong wind. This time I stuck to the main road, rather than twisting moor-topping route, and made more gentle progress.

Turning through the narrow gateway there was no need for this smaller car to breath in so sharply. Onto the track, I opened the windows to let the sounds of the wooded valley wash in. The songs of wrens, tits and robins came through and that of a chiffchaff too, a certainty that spring must be here. The visible signs of the season are few in the Glaslyn Valley; it remains more winter than spring. Only the gorse is in flower and just a few leaves are starting to show. The scene is made all the more chilled with the back-drop of an ice-topped Snowdon and the cooling breeze that the sun cannot warm.

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At the end of the track, across the bridge and over the wet meadow, the copse by the tumbledown barn still has a giant nest, somewhat hovering above the small outcrop. It is more empty than full and there is a loneliness about the ongoing vigil that is making a stand on its long-held claim. Whilst she has returned, he has not; the osprey partnership that has bred in this valley for over a decade has yet to reform. She has been back for over three weeks now and stands alone, waiting for him to join her.

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Both ospreys usually return in the last quarter of March, with the male normally a day or so before the female. Since the nest was first found in 2004, the male has never returned later than 31st March and the female has only once returned in April (22nd). All hope of the male returning is not yet lost as poor weather, first over Africa, then Spain and then France, has led to many ospreys returning late this year. With an improvement in the weather has come a sudden mass movement over the past few days and this has seen many ospreys returning to their nests across the UK, including to Wales. So far, the Glaslyn male has not been amongst them.

Whilst the female is currently without her longstanding mate, she has not been completely alone. Since her return, she has had contact with a number of other ospreys including during my shift today. Just over two hours into my stint, the female had been away from the nest for a short period but then returned. Something didn’t look quite right, she looked different and I almost thought it could be the Glaslyn male for a moment, as the bird had larger white crown. I then noticed the leg ring; the bird wasn’t either of the Glaslyn pair but Blue 5F (blue being the ring colour). Over the course of the shift Blue 5F was seen flying around the area and the Glaslyn female seemed disturbed by her and left the nest on a number of occasions. The Glaslyn female also mantled while on the nest – an alarm or protective posture when the birds crouch down and form a canopy of their wings, in the same way they would when protecting chicks – but I couldn’t always see why. Eventually Blue 5F disappeared and the Glaslyn female was alone again when I left.

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As Blue 5F is leg-ringed, it is easy to identify her; she is a 2012-born bird who fledged at Rutland Water. After leaving the nest, she migrated to Africa and spent 2013 and 2014 in Gambia, and this is the first time that she has returned to the UK. She is related to two other Rutland-born birds that are well known in Wales. She is a cousin of both Glesni and Blue 24, both of whom have returned this year. Glesni is the resident female at the Dyfi osprey nest and Blue 24 is the female who made a nuisance of herself at Dyfi last year (literally fighting Glesni on a number of occasions) and was also seen in the Glaslyn area too.

I’ve got another shift coming up in a couple of weeks, so I’m hoping by the time I return there will be a male in residence too.  Whether that’s the Glaslyn male or not, I’ll have to wait and see.