A spring survey at the end of a wintry week

This morning I went out to the middle of the Cheshire countryside to undertake my first of two visits to my grid square for the British Trust for Ornithology’s (BTO) Breeding Bird Survey.  It’s the third year I’ve done this survey and it’s always a pleasure to spend a couple of hours out in the green fields and wooded hillsides observing nature and listening to the calls and songs of the birds.

It’s certainly been a strange spring week with the temperatures dropping and snow appearing on a couple of days.  However, the season is still progressing towards summer with the daffodils on the roadside verges having lost their flowers, the bluebells starting to bloom and the grass growing brighter shade of green. The leaves are coming out on the trees but could they be a little late this year? Some trees are barely showing any signs of leaves at all – it’s May tomorrow!


The day started cold but bright and as we set off on the first of two one kilometre transects I had to check exactly what I had to do – the long winter has obviously dulled my memory. However, I soon got into the swing of it, for once aided by my assist (thanks Dad – he did the map reading), and started to get the sightings down on the record sheets.

The first transect went without a hitch and the second went well until the penultimate section when winter intervened; the heavens opened and down came a heavy spell of hailstones.  We waited under the shelter of the woodland and halted the survey until the downpour had completely finished, leaving it a little while longer for the birds to re-emerge from wherever they had been sheltering.  It wasn’t long until the birds were singing their spring songs once more and we completed the remaining section of the survey in the dry.

Nothing particularly notable popped up during the survey but all the usual summer migrants were present including the first swallows and house martins I’ve seen this year.  I’m hoping the house martins that nest on my own house return soon – or at least at lot earlier than the did last year – as I’ve got the BTO’s nest survey to do this year.

North Uist: Post-Dusk Chorus

Standing on the doorstep, the moon shining down and lighting up the nocturnal world, it is my hearing that draws attention not my sight; silence but for the birds.

Sheltered from the strong wind but it has ceased and I walk out, crunching on gravel, to the edge of the plot. Overlooking the low, shallow bays, I listen to the post-dusk chorus.

There’s a nervous lapwing out in the dark, wary around its nest and the skittish redshank piping alarm at some movement on the shore.

Further from the water, a harsh growl is let out by the short-eared owl and the snipe drums its wing feathers as it floats to the ground. Back to the sea and the oystercatchers join the lapwing and redshank in calling at an unseen peril.

The sounds of the wild are completed by the mournful curlew as it lifts and glides off into the distance, its crying echoing around the bays.


North Uist: A Day Exploring

My first full day on North Uist and I spent it travelling around the island and getting my bearings. It’s not a huge place, so after a day spent driving and walking, I’m already familiar with the geography.

One of the main reasons I like to come to places like this is for the remoteness and lack of the hustle and bustle of my usual working week in the centre of Manchester.  However, today was exceptionally quiet.  There were very few people about and I didn’t come across many cars – maybe it’s always like this; I’ll have to wait and see tomorrow!

I spent the morning at RSPB Balranald, out on the western coast of the island.  It has contrasting landscapes with wide, open and flat pasture, sandy beaches and rocky shorelines.  The weather out there changed by the minute; to-ing and fro-ing between rain and bright sunshine, the strong wind blew clouds over so quickly that it was difficult to keep up!  The rain didn’t spoil my visit, however, and I think the weather is all part of the experience and certainly made it memorable.


I’m a bit early in the year for some of the highlights at the reserve such as rasping corncrakes and the wildflowers of the Machir but I did get some good views of the local wildlife and passing migrants.  There were flocks of golden plover moving from field to field, a couple of great skuas flew along the coast and a small group of barnacle geese lifted and headed north as I rounded of the shoreline.


After walking along the white sand beaches of the reserve, I headed off on more wanderings around the island and came across the chambered cairn and standing stones at  Beinn Langais.  I walked up to the cairn, then to the top of the hill and round, back via the standing stones, with the weather just as changeable as it was in the morning. From the top of the hill, despite the cloud, there were great views across much of the island and down to the south towards Benbecula and South Uist; on a clear days the sights much be amazing.


For the last part of the day, I travelled across the minor road that almost splits the island in half (well, more like one third to two thirds) and then headed up to Berneray to what the landscapes were like in the north.  I wasn’t disappointed as the beaches, hills and small lochs were just as photogenic as they were elsewhere during the day.


Today has certainly whetted my appetite for more wanderings around the island.  After a guided wildlife tour tomorrow, I’ve got a few ideas of where to visit next. I certainly want to visit the islands to the south but there’s so much more to do on North Uist that I may not get around to going to Harris and Lewis at all – perhaps that’s another trip up here already in the planning!


Scottish Islands: Outer Hebrides

Following on from my trip to Skye last autumn (as well as a number of other trips before), I’m carrying on with my aim to visit all of the main islands, or groups of islands, around the coast of Scotland. This time, I’m staying on North Uist for a week.

After travelling as far as Fort William yesterday, I made the second leg of the outward journey today. I woke after a pretty poor night’s sleep, having been kept awake by a nearby fairground, then woken at 1:15am by the fire alarm and hotel evacuation, and then delayed from getting back to sleep by the overly loud bathroom extractor fan! However, the freshness of the morning, the bright light and the excitement of the journey ahead soon knocked me out of my drowsiness once I’d had breakfast.

My outward trip to Skye last year used the Mallaig ferry and my homeward journey was mostly in the dark before I passed Fort William. I had therefore never driven the route between Fort William and the Kyle of Lochalsh in daylight; today showed what I had missed! I use the word ‘stunning’ quite a lot in my blogging but it’s a truly perfect word to describe the journey. For someone who enjoys a good, long drive on demanding roads, the journey was just about perfect. As I had set off early, there was little traffic along the way although the intermittent snow, sleet and hail made it ‘interesting’ at times. However, I will remember the journey more for the sheer beauty of the landscapes, washed in early morning light, with dark but broken clouds allowing the sun to break over the deep valleys and the newly snow-dusted mountaintops.


I arrived on Skye in plenty of time before I had to be at Uig for the ferry, so I drove a little further into the Trotternish area and retraced some of my autumnal steps. Unfortunately, the sea was too rough to allow much of a chance of catching a glimpse of a cetacean or two.

I love a ferry journey and the trip from Uig to Lochmaddy didn’t let me down. I stayed on deck for the whole 1hr45mins; it was cold but the views were worth it. On arriving on North Uist, it was only a short trip to my accommodation for the week; a newly rebuilt stone and thatch cottage, right on the coast. I don’t think I’ve ever been made to feel more welcome by owners of a holiday cottage and the place itself is pretty special; I might be a bit spoilt this week!

I didn’t do too much exploring before unpacking but I did pop out to the shop and slowly drove back, scanning the landscape for interesting wildlife – I was rewarded with a view of a short-eared owl right by the roadside. Unfortunately, by the time I got my camera ready it had flown off somewhat but I still managed to get some shots. As I write this post, there’s actually another one flying past the cottage!


I can’t wait to see what the week brings!

Now for the peregrines…

Following on from my day with the ospreys yesterday, this morning I got up at 5:00am to head out for my first shift watching over another bird of prey nest – one belonging to a pair of peregrine falcons.

Like osprey nests, those of peregrines are targeted by thieves but whilst the eggs of both are prized by collectors, only the chicks of peregrines are of interest to those of bad intent as ospreys cannot be used for falconry. Both types of nest are also prone to disturbance, therefore, there is a need to help avoid unintentional impacts on these nests. There is a further threat to nesting raptors; that from people who see birds of prey as threats to their sports. Ospreys have been targeted by fishermen who believe they take too many of their sporting prizes whilst pigeon racers have been known to destroy peregrine nests as these birds of prey do have a taste for pigeons; I’ve seen this first hand on Ramsey Island where the local peregrines (one of them pictured below) target the wild relatives of racing pigeons – rock doves.


It was a bitterly cold morning as I left home, having to defrost the car was unexpected – hopefully I didn’t disturb the neighbours with my scraping. Arriving at the site, the light was just starting to rise and I could just make out the area of the nest. It was even colder there, out in the countryside and I was glad for all the layers I had put on but I was even more glad for the blankets left at the site.

The dawn chorus built up slowly, starting with the song thrush, robin and blackbird. It wasn’t long before others joined in, either singing or calling; dunnock, woodpigeon, nuthatch, house sparrow and collared dove. Above all the other calls, those of the jackdaws and ravens came from high up near the nest and it wasn’t long before the distinctive scream of the peregrine rang out as one of the pair took to the sky for the first time in the day. Eventually a woodpecker also joined in, knocking out its drumming from somewhere within the woodland.

The coldness of the shift lasted until the end, even when the sun had risen, but I was rewarded by the scene of the lovely misty early morning light with low cloud hanging still over the fields.


Hopefully, this will have been the first of many shifts to come, but I also hope that others won’t be quite as cold as the one this morning!

A sunny start to osprey season

Spring is in full swing as I head out for my first osprey protection shift of the year but as I make may way across the border, the season seems to go into reverse. Into the hills, a familiar story begins to play out, with the cloud growing and blocking out the early brightness, my car beeps as the temperature falls below five degrees. It is not only rain that starts to fall from the sky but sleet, snowflakes thrown in to make my hopes for a nice day fade.

Up onto the top of the moors, hope no longer seems lost as the first few breaks in the gloom start to form and the sun shows its strength as the moisture on the road begins to lift. Steam rises from the tarmac and the car parts the mist which gathers in the hollows. Patches of fog hang over the fields and forestry blocks, drifting across my path on an increasing breeze. As I reach the crest before dropping down into the valleys, the scene opens up below and in the distance is the sea, shimmering blue beneath the strong glare of the newly emerged sun.

Turning through the gateway, the brightness is unexpected, the clouds diminishing as each moment passes. Driving through the wooded valley, the leafless branches of the enclosing trees cast shadows; I’m driving along a zebra-patterned track.

Leaving the trees behind, emerging out into the flat wet meadowland, little of the cloud remains. The sun falls strongly onto the land but the wind has a sharp chilling edge and the mountains tops have a new coat of white, showing winter, not spring. Here the season is less progressed, the permanent residents may have been singing for a while but the summer migrants are few in numbers and weak in their calls, yet to make this place their own. Those that have arrived seem unsettled, one in particular; she stands alone in the nest at the top of the fir tree copse looking out into the distance, patiently waiting for another to return.


Writing is a bit of a struggle, the flu that has knocked me for over a fortnight still drags on my energy, both physical and creative. Others don’t seem to have such trouble; buzzards, four or five at a time, were performing their aerobatics, rising into the sky only to stoop into a rapid dive before racing back up high again. At one point in the day, they got too close to the nest and they were chased by the newly arrived female osprey, protecting her claim while waiting for her new partner from last year to make an appearance.

There were plenty of other birds present in the Glaslyn Valley today but few signs of other new arrivals. The great tits, chaffinches, meadow pipits, pied wagtails and robins were all busy going about their days feeding and calling loudly from tree, bush, wall and post. As well as the buzzards, other raptors were about, with a red kite sailing past and a large sparrowhawk staring fiercely at me from a low branch. The corvids were in evidence too with carrion crows and jackdaws feeding in the fields and an occasional raven ‘cronk’ could be heard from the hillsides. The summer migrants though were thinly spread, no hirundines yet and the slightest of hesitant calls from a willow warbler came from a nearby wood.


The landscape seems a bit further behind here too with only the willows showing leaves so far although there are buds coming on other trees. The gorse is showing its bright yellow flowers but the grass has yet to turn a more vivid shade of green.

Maybe this osprey breeding season will be as melodramatic as the last, with the female having returned but the new male from last year still yet to appear. There’s plenty of time for him to come back though as it wasn’t until the end of last April that we first saw the handsome new partner for ‘Mrs G’. During the day, both before and during my shift, there were several ‘intrusions’ by other ospreys including by Blue 24, one of the usual suspects who has an eye on the Glaslyn nest. No doubt much will happen before my next shift in May.


I finished my shift in my favourite spot, sat on the bridge in the sun, listening to a robin and song thrush and watching a peregrine circling high above the woodland – perfect!