CNCV: More birch seedlings

Today I was out for another task with Crewe & Nantwich Conservation Volunteers (CNCV). This time we were at one of our favourite locations – Oakmere, a privately-owned site where we have been helping to restore a moss over the past few years.

When we first visited the site, the moss was very overgrown with birch trees and over many visits we cleared the trees all the way to the edge of the moss, opening it up and giving the right plants space to recover and grow. Our tasks there now are focussed on ensuring the birch trees don’t regain a foothold and we spend our days removing seedlings and some larger saplings that have started to re-establish themselves.

It was a lovely summer day today, starting off with blue skies and very little wind. The cloud started to encroach towards the end of the day but it stayed nicely warm. By the end of the day we had cleared a good section of birch seedlings, leaving a large pile at the edge of the moss.

Next time we’re there, in a couple of weeks’ time, I might get another go at one of my favourite conservation tasks – scything – cutting back bracken at the edge of the moss – can’t wait!

I’m not sure what came over me yesterday but I did my first ever batch of baking – and I took the results with me for the mid-morning tea break…

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A final osprey shift

We’re still at the height of summer in the Glaslyn Valley and the picture hasn’t changed much over the last few weeks. The shades are getting a little darker and perhaps plants and leaves, now past their great surge in growth, are starting to look a little worn in places. However, there is still some bright colour out there, with flowers still blooming in the meadows and hedgerows. Up on the moorland tops, the heather is out in bright purple swathes and rosebay willowherb still stands tall along the roadsides.

The birds are quieter now, not the great chorus of earlier in the year but there is still plenty of life being lived. Down in the valley today, the sparrows provided a constant background chirping to my day, joined by the more occasional chaffinch and blue tit. A family of ravens chatted loudly as they flew over and the swallows were darting around in a large group over the river. My shift today had an extra reward with a kingfisher zooming past along the river bank and I could here it on and off throughout the day.

There are signs, however, that we are now in the latter half, or maybe even third, of the summer. The blackberries are starting to fill out, it looks promising for a good crop this year, some of the bracken is beginning to turn and the swifts are departing; one purposefully moved on through the valley as I sat watching from the bridge. The crops are being gathered in the fields, perhaps a little later this year, and the sun doesn’t feel quite a strong as it was in the height of June.

The nest at the top of the tall fir tree out across those wet meadows is a little emptier and quieter than it has been of late. With the three chicks having fledged and their confidence in the air growing, they are spending less time in their natal home and they only seem to appear when there’s a meal in the offing. Throughout the day, there was usually at least one chick in the nest, with three of deliveries of fish from their father. Their mother only made one appearance during my eight-hour shift, mantling when two osprey intruders flew close to the nest and eventually she tired of their presence and chased them off. For once, while I was on a shift, the ospreys flew straight over my head – that’s not happened since my first ever visit to protection back in the early spring of 2012!

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With the end of my final Glaslyn shift comes a close to my busiest time of year. Between late winter and the middle of summer my weekends seem to be filled by all things outdoors and nature-related. From daylong shifts in North Wales or a few hours in the Cheshire countryside protecting the nests of birds of prey, through doing bird surveys at three different sites through March, April, May and June, to the two weeks I spent on Ramsey Island in May and the usual fortnightly tasks with my local group (CNCV). Over 20 weeks or so, it feels my free time has just about all been taken up by conservation volunteering. With so much to do over those 20 weeks, the spring and summer seem to go so fast and perhaps it is actually a good time now to slow down for a bit. I can’t do so for long, however, in only a few weeks’ time I’ll be off to Sweden and then back and straight to a bonus week on Ramsey Island – more volunteering!

The protection site really is a little, rural idil. While the rest of the Snowdonia National Park is in peak season, with visitors sightseeing, hiking, cycling, driving and eating ice creams, all around its many square miles, down a narrow little wooded track, lies a spot that could be a million miles from the bustle of the honeypots. There’s barely any sign of other human life at times when sat by the river; very little road noise and no buildings close enough to overlook. Protection is a little forgotten backwater, where wildlife is exactly that, wild life, and little hindered by the interference of man. This spot isn’t a natural landscape, of course, it has all been touched by our hands; in fact the site used to be much closer to the sea before the wall at Porthmadog was built. But, this small corner seems less touched by man than it’s surroundings and it’s a gem of a spot for those lucky enough to spend some time amongst its trees and meadows.

As I usually do on the nicer days at protection, I finished my shift sat on the little footbridge over the river, feet dangling, watching the water run past, the weeds beneath waving in the current. Getting into my car and driving back up the narrow wooded track, to start my journey home, I said my goodbyes to the valley for another year, and perhaps longer this time, leaving behind the wildlife to continue its passage through the seasons and the colourful painting of the valley to change back to a pencil sketch once more.

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Launching into the year’s highest ebb

We arrive at the peak of the year with the colours still changing on the picture of the Glaslyn Valley. Those deeper, solid shades of high summer are now fixed in the trees and on the grassy plains but there are bright highlights among the different tints of green. This is a time of pinks and purples with the foxgloves dropping the last of their blooms, the rosebay willowherb spreading in great swathes along the roadsides, the prickly thistles standing in the field borders and the vast carpets of heather bringing colour to the hillsides and moorland tops.

This season has been one of contrasts, from the blazing sun under the cloudless blue to the cool, grey covered by the enveloping gloom. We have gone from a dry spring into a downpour-ridden summer with heat followed by chill followed by heat followed by chill. A bright, still and warm morning, turned into a cloud-dotted noon to an afternoon made heavy by a gathering storm. As the dark, brooding masses rolled in from the coast, rumbles of thunder were accompanied the flashes of lightning and walls of rain brought in on strengthening winds. The anger of the heavens skirted around me with only a few drops landing overhead but in the distance, the hills and fields were getting another deluge.

The young of the Glaslyn are growing fast; the badger cubs, now half the size of their parents, are out in the daytime searching for food after the rains have softened the ground. The fox cubs are feeding themselves but still go out on foraging trips with their parents, learning new skills but still finding enough time to play. The otter family is also travelling widely within their mother’s territory using different holts as the river rises and falls with the coming and going of the rains. The young bats are now flying on their own, leaving the protection of the old barn in the warm evenings to catch the midges swarming above the Glaslyn waters. Above the valley floor, high up on the moorlands, the curlew chicks are learning to fly and the young hen harriers are taking to the air but not yet as skilled as their skydancing parents. The young of some of the winter visitors are also flying and independent, the fieldfares and redwings are on to their second broods leaving the earlier chicks to fend for themselves in amongst the Scandinavian forests; it will be many more weeks yet before the whooper swans are on the wing for the first time.

The bird life in the valley is still growing with the last fledglings flitting around the woodlands and drystone walls. Family groups of swallows are chasing around above the fields and skimming low over the river and a young woodpecker calls alarm from behind the branch of an oak tree. There are two jays squabbling as they fly between copses and high above them all is a buzzard calling out as it circles on a short-lived thermal. Along the river, a pair of swans feed on the weed below, reaching deep into the water, risen again by the recent rainfall. Small shoals of fish race from shadow to shadow under threat of the kingfisher sitting, watching, prone on the overhanging branch.

The day brings the final long awaited moment in the nest at the top the fir tree. The last of three chicks, after days of exercising and short hoverings above its home, launches itself into the unknown for the first time. After seeing its two brothers fly over the previous few days, it is the turn of the youngest to put faith in its wings. A short, unsteady and alarming first flight lasts only a minute and ends with a collapse back into the nest – relief for the chick and its watchers.

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As I turned up at protection today Z8 was flapping his wings like nobody’s business and he looked like he might make his first flight at any moment. I didn’t have long to wait but it was with disappointment that I saw him fly only as far as from the nest to the perch, where he stayed for a good long while. Eventually, while my attention was on my report writing and not the TV screen, he made his leap of faith into the air. He flew around the nest, flapping wildly and very ungainly until he eventually landed safely in the comforting bowl of the nest. His brothers had made their own first flights over the past week and with all three now able to leave the nest it brings another mark of success for ospreys in the Glaslyn Valley – three more ospreys fledged from this most significant of nests.

The last two weeks of July and the first two of August, in which we are now, really do mark the high point of the seasons, the country at its highest ebb and a mirror of the lowest ebb at the end of January/beginning of February. This is the warmest time of the year (albeit not in the Valley today!), with the plant life at its fullest. Yes, this moment might not have the burst of energy of spring’s cacophony of new life but it marks the peak of the northern hemisphere’s powers and from where we can look down on the rest of the seasons. With nature’s most intense breeding period coming to an end and the young of the year starting to flourish on their own, it is time for the adults to rest, recover and rebuild their strength for the autumn and winter to come. That being said, the osprey parents still have some fishing to do, to ensure their offspring are ready to make their first journeys south when the autumn does come.

Lovely Norfolk

After a Friday afternoon meeting in Norwich, I decided to spend a couple of nights close to the north-west coast of Norfolk. I spent the one whole day in Norfolk visiting the nature reserves along the coast including RSPB Titchwell and Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s sites at Cley and Holme Sands.

On the way back to the pub I was staying at, I came across the field below. Having missed it in the morning, I was struck by a flash of red as I drove past and had to stop for a better look – joined by someone else who had the same idea.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a display of poppies…

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A nice bit of wheelbarrowing

After doing some work this morning, I turned up late for today’s Crewe & Nantwich Conservation Volunteers’ task at Sound Common. Working for Cheshire East Council, we spent the day removing birch saplings and clearing brambles. Some of us also moved the soil left over from the machines which had scraped off the surface of the heathland, revealing bare earth on which the heather can regenerate – I love a bit of wheelbarrowing!

Direct from the Glaslyn Valley

The layers of paint on the picture of the seasons are adding deeper tones as the year moves on again. Gone is the vibrancy of the first flushes of spring, replaced by the more solid shades of summer. With cloudless skies there can still be uplifting blues above and striking greens below but the contrasts under the bright sun burn out some colours and send others under darkened shadows. When the clouds come over, there is less to lift the spirits and as the rain rattles on the roof again, there is another day of summer lost to the weather. We have just passed the solstice but the height of the season has yet to come, there’s still time for long, warm, lazy days and humid, airless nights but sitting under the gloom of dark clouds, they seem a distant hope.

Far away from the Glaslyn, the winter visitors are rearing their young on the lake shores of Iceland and in the forests of Scandinavia. The whooper swans are protecting their still small cygnets from the attentions of arctic foxes; there’s many more weeks to go until they can take flight. The fieldfares and redwings now have chicks out of their nests, dotted about the forests and clearings, and perhaps there’s time for another brood before instinct turns thoughts to southward passage. Back above the Glaslyn valley on the moorland plateau, the curlew chicks are feeding themselves and wandering further while the hen harrier young are showing feathers and starting to outgrow their heather-bounded hideaway.

The badger cubs are now weaned and spend the time in day beds above the ground before heading out to forage with the group, going further from their oak tree home each night. The fox cubs are weaned too and they play around the outside of the earth in the old rabbit warren while the vixen goes off to find them more solid food to eat. The otter is travelling further with her young now that the water has receded, searching out her other holts and avoiding the dog otter patrolling his territory. At the back of the old barn, the young bats are growing fast but still need to suckle from their mothers, it won’t be long, though, until they take their first tentative flights.

The birds are subdued along with the colours of the summer scenery. The numbers of small fledglings seem to be reducing as they disperse into the wider countryside and become prey for the sparrowhawk. The adults are less visible too; the dawn chorus is slowing ebbing away as the breeding season drops in intensity and the moult begins. There are some birds still making themselves heard, with the meadow pipits calling above the wet fields and the swallows chatting as they sweep low over their heads. The chaffinches chirp in the trees along with the great tits, and the buzzard cries as it circles above on the occasional thermal. A jay harshly calls out as it swoops across the woodland clearing and the woodpecker taps on a dead tree standing on the edge of the slowly flowing stream, now becoming full of weed, moving in the water like rippling barley.

The growth of new life isn’t over yet, though; at the top of the fir tree are three chicks with newly grown feathers and it won’t be long until they are as big as their parents. The conveyor belt of fish is still going strong while the chicks spend the days preening and starting to stretch and test their wings.

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It was an eventful start to my shift with the ringers on site, climbing the tree to the nest-filled summit and carefully putting the blue rings on the three chicks. The weather was just about perfect for it too, with good temperatures, but not too warm, and a light wind with no rain. As the ringers left there were four adult ospreys circling above the nest, a rare sight in Wales.

After a short wander in the lovely morning sun, I spent most of my shift writing reports for work; not my favourite way to pass my time at Protection but if I have to write reports, I’d rather do it here! The chicks spent their time mostly hunkered down in the nest, perhaps relaxing after their early morning surprise, with a bit of preening and occasional wing flap. Their mother made a few journeys to the fields to bring in more nesting material and Aran brought in a couple of fish which Mrs G feed to the chicks (I didn’t see what the first one was but the second was definitely a mullet). By the time I had tired of report writing, the clouds had closed in once more and light rain was starting to fall on a strengthening breeze. At one stage, Mrs G seemed to be trying to shelter the chicks from the rain but they are now far too big for her to provide much relief from the weather.

 

We’re well into the summer now and the countryside is changing into a more subdued pattern of life and colour. The short heatwave seems a long time ago now and I’m wondering whether we might have a disappointing year for summer weather – the past couple of weeks have certainly been anything but summer-like. However, there’s still the whole of July and August to come and there are some more shifts to do before the chicks fledge and protection closes down for another year.

I think this is the first time I’ve actually uploaded a blog post direct from the Protection site – 4G seemed to have arrived in the valley since my last shift!

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A typical summer day at Glaslyn!

The pencil-sketch foundation to the painting of the seasons has now long been covered by layers of watercolour, although those layers are in danger of being swept away by the unseasonal weather. Summer is here although no one would know looking outside. The strong wind is putting force behind the rain as it comes down for a seemingly endless day. The saturated ground can hold no more water and the rain is running straight off the meadows into the swelling river, rising by the minute. As the day wears on those meadows start to shrink as the water begins to breach the high banks and spill out over the low, sheep-clipped grass. The bridge across the small Glaslyn tributary began the day high above the waterline but as time moves on, the flow comes up to meet it and starts to wash at the underside of its grey-painted steel joists.

But summer it is; the seasons have moved on at pace since my last visit. The trees are out in full leaf, their various shades of green giving a mottling to the hillsides. The rain-bringing cloud hangs low over the valley, no mountains to be seen and even the lower hilltops are out of sight. Under the woodland cover the first blooms have faded and dried but the bracken and ferns have grown strong and the fox gloves bring a shock of lightning pink to the sides of the narrow track. The brambles are reaching out their clawing branches, now white topped with flowers, promising a good crop of blackberries for the autumn. Out in the open, the grass and rush have grown strong, now topped with ripening seeds; in their midst stands of irises, yellow-crowned, have reached their peak, fighting to stay upright against the wind.

Our winter visitors are now settled in their summer breeding grounds. The whooper swans have their grey downy young fresh from the nest on Icelandic valley floors and the fieldfares and redwings are feeding their chicks in amongst the pine woodlands of Scandinavia. Closer to the Glaslyn, high up on the moorland plateau, the curlew is leading out her young in the long grass while the male hen harrier is passing fresh prey to the female to feed to the chicks hidden away below a large stand of heather.

Down in the valley, the mammal youngsters are continuing to grow. The badger and fox cubs adventure further away from their homes under the oak tree and old rabbit warren, and the otter family has moved from the natal halt to another further up river, away from the rising water. The bats now have young, but they have yet to leave the darkness of the old barn.

There are fledglings all around, feeding on the seed and nuts left out for them – coal tits, chaffinches and house sparrows – a large mixed flock bursts from the ground as a squirrel approaches along the moss-topped drystone wall. A young woodpecker shouts alarm at it from the tree above but the squirrel continues on its way. A family of crows wanders around the fields, an occasional squabble between siblings and there’s a fleeting glimpse of a solitary swallow as it skims over their heads. In a distant tree, a song thrush still sings its spring song, a jewel of sound amongst the tapping of rain, rushing of the breeze and scratching of the branches on the rooftop.

Replacing three speckled eggs are three growing chicks, high up in the nest at the top of the stand of pines. Growing fast on meals of flounder, mullet and trout, they are beginning to gain strength and sit more purposefully upright while they are fed piece by piece by their parents as the rain finally relents.

I was hunkered down in the protection site caravan for most of my shift; there’s not a lot of fun in wandering around in the drenching rain. When I arrived, the river was already high after the overnight rain but with the downpours continuing on and off all day, the water levels continued to rise throughout my shift. Below are photos taken at the start of my shift and seven hours later – the water noticeably higher in the second. I couldn’t get to the bridge at the end of my stay as the water was above my wellies and fingers of water had reached all the way from the river, along the path and past the protection site caravan, lapping at the bottom of its steps – the water was then washing over the top of the bridge.

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I often seem to get bad weather when I do a shift but in June, I would normally expect to get something better than I did today – it seemed more like an autumnal October day. However, I can’t complain, I had the nice, dry shelter of a caravan while the ospreys were exposed to the full force of the weather; well at least the parents were. With the rain lasting most of the day, it was a very quiet shift, only one fish delivered and fed to the chicks. The chicks spent the vast majority of my shift nestled together under the protective wings of their mother; she was taking brunt of the elements for them. Despite the rain and wind, it wasn’t cold and it was just nice to be back in the valley, to see how the life had moved on so much in the five weeks since my last visit.

The year seems to be passing so quickly – but at least we still have most of summer yet to come!