Sunshine, Ospreys and Test Match Special

I pull back the curtains and the day welcomes me with rain drops on the window and puddles on the ground; of course it’s raining, I’ve got an osprey shift! However, the rain has been and gone, and looking up, there’s blue. Leaving home and driving through the Cheshire fields, I can see what has gone, rain falling further east. Ahead is more clear sky and my shades go on as I cross the border. It may be sunny but there still a chill in the early morning air and the heating soon warms the car. Despite my expectations, breaks remain in the clouds and the sun goes in and out on my way. I choose the moor top route again but stop part way to look down on the stone bridge over the mountain river.

Passing through the gateway and over the cattle grid, my windows are already open and the woodland is full of bird song. The chiffchaff, willow warbler, robin and wren welcome me while the breeze helps to bring the scents of the damp-covered land into the car. The debris on the track cracks and snaps as I drive under the dappled sunlight. The roadside bluebells are now past their best but the summer flowers are starting to show; the first foxgloves are bursting up their stems. Leaving my car, a cuckoo calls from the hillside trees and buzzards are feeding on the recently ploughed field. The swallows skim low over grass and a redstart chatters in a lane-side tree.

Out in the open, the ground is now dry, made more so by the warm sun and cooling wind. In shelter it is almost summer-like; away from cover, when a cloud rolls over, it’s almost cold and could be the first days of spring. Hope still stands in the nest across the meadows, both birds are up in the tree-top bowl as I arrive. The two eggs have some time to remain intact until they start to be chipped at from inside.

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The early part of my shift made it almost easy to forget the soap opera-like drama of the past few weeks. Two ospreys quietly marking time while incubating a clutch of eggs in that well established nest and territory; they looked quite content in the sunshine. The peace and quiet wasn’t to last long as there were two intrusions in the first two hours. A third osprey was in the area and made concerted attempts to land on the nest. The male gave chase on both occasions and was gone for quite some time, trying to drive off the incomer. When the male returned in the company of the intruder, the female successfully drove it off and then had a brief skirmish with the local crows. Later on, when the male had gone fishing, the intruder returned but only made one dive at the nest before heading off east.

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This was the penultimate day of the meteorological spring and with the sun out it felt almost summer-like but the stiff breeze made it seem much earlier in the year when cloud cover returned. The trees also don’t quite seem to be in tune with the time of year with not all fully out in leaf. Maybe there’s a theme here in the Glaslyn Valley this year with the ospreys being behind the usual schedule too.

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I don’t often have an excuse to sit listening to Test Match Special for most of a day. For once, the internet worked well on my laptop so I had a shift accompanied by Geoffrey, Aggers & co. (with the backing of a constantly calling cuckoo). It wasn’t a great start to the day with the New Zealand tail wagging but after they were all out for 350, England had a good opening partnership – only for this to start falling apart when I was on the way home!

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That was my last shift for a while but hopefully usual osprey service has been resumed. Maybe, just maybe, there might be four ospreys in the nest next time I make my way west and down through that wooded valley.

House Martin Survey 2015

My spring bird surveys are just about coming to an end with only the June breeding bird surveys to do at two Cheshire wildlife trust sites. However, I’ve a new summer survey to do this year and it’s all about house martins.

This will be the fifteenth summer I will have lived in my house and each one has been accompanied by house martins breeding under the eaves. However, last year they only built the nest and didn’t successfully breed, this year they haven’t returned at all. Fortunately, there are martins on some of the surrounding houses but mine appear to have gone.

Whilst the birds did make a bit of a mess on my drive, that was more than made up for by the chortling sounds coming in through the landing window on warm summer evenings and early each morning. I fear that those sounds won’t return. These birds live on average for only two years, so a break of two years breeding on my house may mean they never return.

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It isn’t just my house that they are failing to return to. The rapid decline of this species means they are now amber listed – of conservation concern – but very little is known about them; this is where the new survey comes in. In 2015, 2,000-3,000 randomly selected one-kilometre grid squares will be surveyed to generate estimates of the national population. In 2016, a further set of surveys will be undertaken to monitor breeding activity at individual nests.

I’m very fortunate to have been allocated the grid square next to the one in which I live; it starts about 100 metres from my house. The survey involves three visits (I’ll explain the second two in a later post) and I completed the first last weekend. This visit to the grid square was a recce to make initial investigations into what nests are present in the area.

My allocated grid square is largely rural with a couple of small housing estates and a couple of sections of residential road. I wasn’t therefore expecting to have huge numbers of nests but I only found one within the whole square. I felt somewhat cheated by this as I observed three distinct groups of house martins flying around the area in the east, south and west of the grid square. I felt even more cheated by the fact that I found other nests literally a handful of metres outside the grid square which I’m unable to include in the survey. However, it is just as important what you don’t count in the square as what you do, so even feeling slightly cheated, I must only record the one nest.

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Whilst these surveys won’t directly bring ‘my’ house martins back, I hope it will contribute to the understanding of the reasons for their decline. In due course, maybe that understanding will help to reverse the decline and, one day, I may again hear the chortling of house martins coming in through my landing window on a warm summer evening.

You can read more on these surveys on the British Trust for Ornithology’s website.

A record for my BTO Breeding Bird Survey

A few days ago I did the third and final spring visit to my British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) Breeding Bird Survey grid square. This was the second of the visits to undertake the survey itself, following a first visit back in March to record any changes in habitats from the same surveys last year. It was a lovely warm spring morning with the countryside full of activity, the landscape a lush green and the birds putting on a great show.

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As usual it took me about 45 minutes to complete each of the two 1km transects, recording all the species I saw or heard, including the number of individuals. I also recorded any mammals I saw or their signs. At the end of the survey, which finishes part way up Bulkeley Hill, I walked the rest of the way up the hill and then the long way around back to my car. The top of the hill gives some great views across the Cheshire Plain back towards home and it also gives nice views across the survey grid square.

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Whilst this was the second year I have done the survey of the grid square near Bulkeley, the site has been surveyed for nearly two decades. The first survey of the site was done in 1998 and the average number of species recorded each year since then, before I started the surveys last year, was 26. Last year I noted 32 species in total and this year I noted the highest ever figure of 39. Over the course of the last 18 years of surveys, 55 species have been recorded. Five of the species I’ve recorded in the last two years weren’t recorded previously (raven, linnet, meadow pipit, goldcrest and red-legged partridge).

My, now usual, busy spring is almost coming to a close with only a last osprey shift to come before the change in month brings a change in season. However, summer will also be busy and will hold more wildlife encounters.  I have a new BTO survey to do, I need to complete the surveys at the two Cheshire Wildlife Trust sites I monitor, I’m bound to have a few more trips to Glaslyn and the highlight of my year in nature is still to come – a fortnight on RSPB Ramsey Island.

A Glaslyn Nightshift – Volunteering at its Best!

Leaving the house, after a brighter day, the weather knows I’m on my way to Glaslyn; the drizzle starts to fall as I close the door behind me. I join the end of the slow moving traffic, families heading into Wales for the long weekend, bikes on racks and caravans towed behind. Passing through villages and making turns, the cars move aside one by one, until I’m alone on the narrow twisting route down into the valley. As I descend, the clouds begin to break and the last rays from the sun pick up highlights on the mountainsides.

Turning onto the track, I do the usual and lower my windows, no rain dripping in this time. The woodland path is dotted with fallen blossom and the undergrowth is beginning to encroach; the vibrant green still prominent despite the failing light. The last sounds of the day float into the car but the night is coming upon the valley as I break out into the open meadowscape. It’s not a bird that flits in front of the car as I reach the gates but a single bat, out early in the growing gloom. As I open the door and stand in the fresh air, a dampness clings to me, the rain of the past few days has left behind humidity from which mist is rising and enveloping the hillsides. Across the fields, over the river and behind the bund, the nest overlooking the small copse has a single new hope, an egg being incubated; a last chance of the year?

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After the windy and rainy night shift of two weeks ago, it was with excitement that I arrived at protection yesterday. I was welcomed by bats flying around the field by the caravan, some just skimming above my head, and the sounds of owls in the woodland. I’ve done quite a few night shifts over the past four springs but this was the first without either rain or the old generator that used to power the camera systems. Without those two annoyances, the night was peaceful and all the more vivid for it. The bats were stunning, different sizes circling and darting through the trees and over the fields. The owls screeched and hooted at each other, both barn owl and tawny. A distant fox called and the occasional trilling of a grasshopper warbler could be heard as I made my way over to the forward hide.

The hide, just a bit nearer to the nest than the protection caravan, gives an unobstructed view across the field towards the tree. The last of the evening light was just failing as we set up in the hide, the mist starting to settle at the bottom of the valley as well as clinging to the hillsides and a silence descending on the scene. The moon made fleeting appearances and the stars begin to flicker in breaks between the clouds. After a couple of hours, I returned to the caravan to monitor the cameras while Gwyn remained in the hide.

Since my last shift another egg has been laid, the sixth so far, but there’s a difference this time as it is being actively incubated, unlike the previous ones. When I arrived for my shift, the female was nestled down for the night atop the egg, looking more comfortable than the last time I saw her at the end of a rain-sodden shift. She seemed restless throughout the night but all in all it was quite uneventful during the darker hours.

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As the light began to rise, at around four o’clock, I made my way back through the field, over the bridge and along the bund, to the forward hide. Rejoining Gwyn, we listened to the dawn chorus and waited for the first rays of sunlight to touch the dew-washed land. The birds laid on a great opening to the day with song thrushes, blackbirds and redstarts providing the backing track to a cuckoo calling across the meadows. As the day grew in its strength the signs of the night still remained until just before the sun broke from behind the mountains of Snowdonia; tawny owls still hooting in the woods and the occasional bat remaining out to catch a late meal. A cronking raven passed overhead making a first flight of the day and a lesser spotted woodpecker made its undulating flight past the hide, narrowly missing a low flying buzzard.

The day began for the ospreys as the male returned from his overnight roost but it was only when we returned to the protection caravan that we noticed the reason for the female’s nocturnal restlessness; a second egg now in the nest – a further hope raised for success this year.

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A first night shift of the year!

After a drive to Lincoln and back already in the day, I head out again into the rain. It has come down heavily over the past few hours and the roads are flooded in places, water stretching from gutter to gutter. The hills across the border have a low cloak of cloud, with wisps of mist in the fir tree forests. The familiar route is a bit of a drag today, hours spent in the car already take the enjoyment out of the travel. Rising higher and higher, I take the moor-top route this time, a little bit of fun to cheer up this damp, dark and dreary journey.

Turning through the gateway, the dusk is closing the light and the track is littered with woodland debris, brought down by wind and rain. Opening the windows, with drops coming in, there is very little to hear and no chorus this time, no birds calling, no spring prime display. A night-long shift this time, a first of the year, and eight hours to while away, enclosed and protected from the weather. Out in the tree top nest, no defence from the weather is offered and the female sits hunkered down in the scraped out bowl.

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Friday night brought yet another rainy protection shift. The rising water in the nearby river looked like it could block the path to the forward hide, so I (and Dan, my fellow nocturnal watch keeper) spent the shift in the protection caravan.

The Glaslyn female was still in the company of the unringed male and they seem to have bonded very well over the past week since my last shift. She was sitting on the fifth egg of the year and there was hope that it could be the first fertilised egg. However, on Sunday the it was seen to be cracked; another hope dashed.

Night shifts are usually less eventful than those during the day and this one was even less so with the persistent rain. With the female sat in the nest and the male roosting elsewhere, there wasn’t much to do but talk or doze. There’s always at least one person either watching the cameras or in the forward hide but it’s always good if there’s a bit of sleep involved too!

The pay back for a night shift usually comes from being able to experience the dawn chorus and I usually wander down to the river and stand on the bridge to listen. Saturday was no different, and with the water levels not as high as they might have been, I took my usual position. However, it was a very subdued chorus probably due to rain still being in the air and a strong breeze.  It didn’t take long for me to decide to give up and return to the shelter of the spy cave.

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We were relieved at 6:00am and drove around to the static caravan at the lovely Aberdunant site. I got an hour or so’s sleep before heading down to Port’ for a cooked breakfast. Before heading home I made my first visit to the viewing site this year and saw the new visitor centre for the first time. It’s a huge improvement on the previous accommodation and provides lovely floor to ceiling views over the river and towards Snowdon. It’s not all about ospreys and there’s plenty of other wildlife to see – there were loads of swallows and house martins skimming low over the water and a woodpecker on the bird feeders.

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On the way home I made a diversion via the Dyfi Osprey Project and visited their new 360 observatory. That’s a great visitor facility and the new walk out to it also provides good views and sounds – I saw my first cuckoo for a couple of years.

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The drive home was stunning, as a passed through the mid-Wales valleys between Machynlleth and Welshpool – the night shift was worth it for the drive alone!

It’s going to be a couple of weeks before I return and maybe, even by then, there might still be just that last glimmer of hope for some chicks this year.