Looking forward to 2021

Reading my equivalent post for 2020, it is full of hope for many great things to come and I really don’t want to temper that hope too much at the beginning of this year. Whilst we no doubt have many months to come under the cloud of the COVID-19 pandemic and some very difficult news will undoubtedly come, I can’t start 2021 without talking about my positive hopes for the year. 

I have to say that being positive at the moment isn’t the easiest thing to do. I’m in a constant state of disillusionment at present where the country is concerned. I did start to write a few passages here about this but it just makes me angry and disappointed, and I don’t want to turn my blog into a space for unheard political rantings. Instead, I want 2021 to be a year where I refresh my blog and find my nature mojo again, building on my experiences of 2019 rather than 2020. How realistic this is, well, we’ll just have to wait and see.

If all goes well, January, or possibly early February, will see us moving to a new home in the Midlands. We’re buying a house in a village north of Northampton in a lovely area of rolling countryside. After living in South Cheshire for the past 40 years, I’m really looking forward to exploring somewhere new; all the roads, lanes and footpaths, all the best spots for wildlife and views. Being more central in the country, we’re going to be closer to areas which have been out of reach of day trips from Cheshire, so hopefully a few trips to the eastern side of the country and further south.

Depending on what happens with COVID-19, there are the plans for trips that were put on hold in 2020 to take in 2021; I could almost cut and paste this part of last year’s post into here. In June we’re planning to go up to the Outer Hebrides to stay on the Isle of Harris at Luskentyre. At that time of year we’re hoping that the machair will be blooming and we can take a trip out to one or two of the outlying islands, possibly St Kilda or the Shiants.

In July I’ve got my name down for a week back volunteering on RSPB Ramsey Island but whether the island will be open to visitors and volunteers at that time is anyone’s guess. The following month we might have a trip across to Sweden to visit family but also spend some time out in the countryside.

Our biggest plan for the year, and hopefully far enough away that COVID will not interfere with it, is a trip to Zambia for a camping safari in the South Luangwa National Park. After having limited opportunities for wildlife watching in 2020, a chance to go back to Africa for a safari would be very welcome.

Given we are moving to a new house and new area, many of my volunteering activities of recent few years are now, sadly, in the past. Many of the activities I’ve been doing since 2011 including local volunteering with Crewe & Nantwich Conservation Volunteers, bird surveys for Cheshire Wildlife Trust and British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) and osprey nest protection shifts for the Glaslyn Wildlife. However, the move perhaps presents new opportunities to try different volunteering. I hope I can get a new BTO survey site in Northamptonshire and hopefully there may be a local group or two I could volunteer with but I’ll have to do some digging to find out what opportunities there are.

I’m not sure how much of the above is just wishful thinking, given what happened in 2020 and settling into a new home could easily take all of our time for quite a while. However, I’d rather be ambitious and optimistic with plans for 2021 at the start but not be too surprised if I need to change things as time moves on. Anyway, with most of the country in virtual lockdown for the coming weeks, there’s plenty of time to think it all through.

The Cheshire Sandstone Ridge

As I plan and prepare to move home I have been thinking about the things I will miss about the area in which I currently live. It is, afterall, the area I have called home for over 40 years, it is the place of my childhood and of many years since.

South-west Cheshire, where I have lived since before I started school, and almost as long as I can remember, is a quiet and pleasant rural area. It is a place of large, open and largely flat, hawthorn-hedged fields, mostly given over to the dairy farming in one way or another. Through pasture, silage and often maize, the fields provide for the Friesian and Holstein herds that dot the countryside and give the area an often sweet bovine scent. It is not a remarkable landscape; it is mostly devoid of woodland or great rivers. The Dee passes along its border with Wales, barely the making a Cheshire river at all. In the east, where the county touches neighbouring shires, the Peak District rises, facing the opposing Welsh hills, but for much of the county, it is a flat, barely rolling plain. 

There is something, however, that stands out, quite literally, across a sweep of Cheshire; a low sandstone ridge of hills. They stretch just over five miles on a slight arc from north-north-east to south-west. On approaching them from home, they stand quite abruptly above the surrounding flatness but from other angles they have a shallower and more measured incline from the lower ground beneath. 

The hills are rather unassuming; they’re not the great fells of the Lakes to the north, the peaks of Derbyshire to the east, the mountains of Snowdonia to the west or even the Shropshire Hills to the south. They rise from around 100m above sea level at their base to just over 200m at their peaks, these not being grand pinnacles but the rounded summits of the undulating ridge.

They do not take great evocative names either, rather they take them from the surrounding villages that lie in the folds at their base; Beeston, Peckforton, Bulkeley and Bickerton. They do have places, though, that conjure thoughts back to previous times, when old industries operated and further back when myths and legends were made: Maiden Castle, Mad Allen’s Hole, Musket’s Hole, Raw Head, Coppermine Lane and Stanner Nab.

They are not quite a continuous string; Beeston Hill is like a friend now ostracised from the others. It stands alone, its craggy sheerness showing its back to the others. Its top ringed by an 800 year old castle, taking advantage of its all-seeing position, Beeston is the perfect site for a defensive position. The others, joined together, start at Peckforton, with its much newer castle-like country house, leading to Bulkeley and its covered reservoir and old narrow gauge railway up its steep face, and to Bickerton with the high point at Raw Head, heathland on its broad open top and its prehistoric fort. These hills are part of a longer seam of sandstone from the Mersey to the Shropshire Border, Frodsham to Malpas, but Peckforton to Bickerton, with Beeston alongside, stand apart from others, distinct in their familiar grouping.

The hills are a place of varying landscapes, broadleaf woodland, lowland heath, grassland and pasture. They are a place of wildness, of buzzards and ravens, a place of farming and quiet rural villages, a place of both pre-history and the modern world, and, for me and many, a place to escape and breath.

They have been a place that has dotted my life with memories. For the last 20 years I have seen them from my bedroom window through the gaps between the few houses between mine and the open countryside, but they have been so much more than that for so much longer.

The hills were a place for a toddle as a three or four year-old through the lower wooded paths, a challenge for climbing the railway track as a growing child, a hiking route along the hill top edges as a cub and a scout, a place for an afternoon walk with friends and family, a setting for early morning bird surveys and a place to take someone for a quiet wander.

I’ve slept out there too; in the Scout hut at Beeston, in a tent below Peckforton and in a hedge somewhere nearby. I’ve seen the sun rise from them and seen the sun set both from the top and from behind. Within their slopes I’ve seen the dusk on New Years Eve and the sun going down on Summer Solstice.

They have been places for all seasons too. I’ve waded through knee high snow on their tops, wandered listening for birds on warm, quiet spring mornings, walked end to end on hot summer days and felt the first chills of autumn on damp afternoon strolls amongst the copper and gold-leafed trees.

Above all, though, they have been continuous presence in my life, a back drop always there, somewhere to spend a spare hour or two, somewhere to escape for an afternoon or just somewhere to stop and look at for a moment. They have been a pivot in my local geography, I judge where I am by my relationship to them and they have welcomed me home as a first recognisable sight on a return from a journey away.

I will miss them…

In writing this post, I came across the website for the Sandstone Ridge Trust, which provides much more information on the area – well worth a look.

Even better badgers

Well, I say ‘even better badgers’, what I actually mean is even better views of badgers, and it’s been singular so far. Since the last blog post, we’ve been staying in London or away in Cornwall for a week, so we’ve missed seeing the badger. When we returned to my house, there was little sign that they had been visiting then garden in our absence; not really surprising given no food was being put out.

However, for the last two weeks we’ve been putting food out for them each night and we’ve continued to get great views. The badgers haven’t been visiting every night; they seem to come for a couple of nights in a row and then go elsewhere for another two or three nights.

There have been two particularly great evenings watching a single badger in the garden. Each evening started with the badger feeding from the ground bird feeder; we filled it with peanuts, bird food and peanuts. After very slowly and carefully taking all that food, he (we think it’ a he) walked onto the patio and up to the doorstep where we had put more peanuts. On both occasions we started watching him from the rear bedroom window but we sneaked downstairs and lay on the floor looking out of the bottom window of the back door. Our faces were about six inches apart and we could hear him snuffling and crunching on the peanuts – we were transfixed! After finishing the nuts, he wandered off and disappeared into the darkness. I never thought I’d see badgers in my back garden let alone come face to face with one through the glass.

After having so many fails with my trailcam in the past, it has been good for tracking their visits and the time of night they appear, if they do. We would also not have know that two badgers have been on some occasions after only ever seeing one at a time. The camera also showed us that a fix has been visiting too. It really does go to show that you never really know what’s out in your garden at night.

Garden badgers – why now?!?!?!

In the 20 years I have lived in my house, I’ve always looked on in envy at those people you see on TV who have a family of foxes, badgers, pine martens or other such creatures regularly visiting their gardens. Living on the edge of an urban area, close to the open countryside, I’ve always thought I was lucky to even have my narrow glimpses of fields and distant hills from my house, but wildlife has often been lacking. Yes, my garden bird list not terrible but I’ve rarely had any good mammal sightings. The grey squirrels are regular visitors as is a mouse, I installed a hedgehog home some years ago but I can barely remember seeing them, I once had a mole hill in the lawn and about once or twice a year I see a bat flit overhead as the daylight subsides. That’s about it for 20 years.

After being locked down in London, I returned home to find a hole had been dug under one of the large bushes in the back garden. It was not a huge hole; probably five or six inches round and around 12 inches deep. When I first saw it, the hole has largely been filled with leaf litter, so probably hadn’t been touched for weeks. I thought no more of it until last week. When I woke in the morning and looked out of the window into the back garden, there was a new hole on the edge of the lawn with the excavated soil liberally scattered across the grass around it. This new hole was about the same size as the first but around the rest of the lawn were a number of other smaller holes, about one to two inches round. It was now time to find out what was creating these holes!

I set up my camera trap and put out some bird food and peanuts on the ground in front of it and left it standing guard over night. In the morning, I went into the back garden but, as has been much the case for many of my camera trap’s outings, it only recorded me! I didn’t give up but for the next four nights got zero in terms of interesting sightings; only a couple of the local cats making their ways through the garden on their nocturnal rounds.

On the sixth night, however, I struck lucky, a badger! Snuffling around the garden, it was happily tucking into the food I’d put out for it (after having to replenish it daily after the squirrels had taken their fills). Eventually it finished all the food off and disappeared into the darkness. Massively excited, I didn’t leave it there and the trap was out each of the following nights with a badger returning the next night and the two coming the night after that.

Having realised that the camera trap had the wrong date and time set up on it, I put it right and the following morning when I checked the recordings, I realised the badgers must have been in the garden at about 9:30pm, before we had gone to bed. So, the next evening we put the food and camera trap out and waited for it to get dark. We crept upstairs and looked out of the rear bedroom window but couldn’t see anything immediately. However, as our eyes got used to the darkness, looking slightly away from where we had put the food, to improve our night vision, we saw some movement, and there, in the gloom, was the stripey face of the badger! 

The previous night, we had gone to bed while the badgers were still in the garden and the bright light from the bathroom, shining down onto the lawn, didn’t seem to bother them at all, so we switched it on. With the garden now more visible, we had a great view of the badger wandering around and eating; we could even hear him crunching on the peanuts, once we had dared to open the window. He didn’t even seem to bother us talking a little, in hushed voices; he just kept eating away and then foraging around the rest of the garden, with us watching him from above for about half an hour.

The following night, we did the same thing and had great views of a single badger from the back bedroom window. However, wanting a view from his level, we sneaked downstairs into the kitchen. With all the lights off and the bright digital clocks on the oven and microwave covered up, the kitchen was in pitch darkness. We stood by the largely glass back door watching the badger eat from the bird food tray about a third of the way towards us from the back hedge. Once he had finished that food supply, he started on the peanuts I’d scattered further towards the house. He came closer and closer, and much to our amazement, came right up to the door and peered into the darkness, literally less than a foot from our feet. He didn’t spot us and wander off around the side of the house before reappearing and wandering back up to the far end of the garden. We eventually left him to himself having had the closest view of a badger ever!

We put food out for the next few nights and frequently checked before bedtime to see if the badgers were there but had no further luck. One or two badgers did come back each night but the the timing of their visits varied over the hours between 11:00pm and 4:00am.

I’m absolutely ecstatic to have these lovely animals using my back garden, even if they do leave the odd hole here and there. Although after giving them so much nice food over those nights, I do slightly object to them setting up a latrine in one of the borders!

While it’s wonderful to have them in the garden, this comes with a very large dose of irony. After 20 years of living in the house and dreaming of having such wildlife in my garden, I have only a month left before I will be moving out and leaving the house behind – ‘why now!?!?!?!’ has been said quite a few times over the last week! 

Lockdown Diary: Weeks 13 and 14

Another two weeks have passed and Lockdown now almost feels mundane. Fourteen weeks in and the pattern of life is now so set that I feel it’s just a case of getting on with it and not hoping too much for a quick return to whatever normal we get to. Probably repeating previous comments, I’ve had it relatively easy compared to key workers or parents having to home tutor children, or indeed, key workers having to home tutor. I can’t say that this situation hasn’t had any impact, like most I’m feeling the strain and anxiety from what is a complex set of challenges. For me these challenges have particularly focussed on working differently and the difficulty in dividing work from home; the restrictions on movement, now receding, and at the beginning very great concern over food supply. What could have been one of the biggest challenges, hasn’t been a challenge at all; moving with a new partner can difficult but for us it has been the easiest of transitions despite the added stress of COVID-19.

The summer solstice passed on a week ago and we didn’t really mark it. We were going to but after having a lunchtime picnic in Kew Gardens, we decided to stay in. Thinking about this has made me realise that it’s now months since I’ve seen the sun rise or set. It’s now too early to see the sunrise before I get out of bed and the view to the west from the flat is obscured by trees. It may not seem a big thing but watching the sunset always links me back to the fact that we are all so small in contrast to the vastness of the world around us and beyond. The sunset also links me back to the many places I’ve seen them before and stood watching this daily spectacle. With the easing of Lockdown and a move back home for a period, I’m hoping for a few nice sunsets to watch.

This past week has been tremendously hot, with over 30c for several days running. After a couple of weeks where some well-needed rain came, the return to good weather brought with it temperatures I don’t see very often in the UK and it brought into perspective the notable differences in climate between the South-East and the Midlands and North.

Chiltern poppies

Last weekend we left the urban area of Kew behind and headed for a different part of the River Thames where it makes its way through the south Oxfordshire countryside. Parking at a village station we headed through the houses and onto the Thames Path, walking westwards in the direction of flow.

Not long after leaving the village behind, we looked north onto the Chilterns and just above the houses was a shallow valley facing the river with a large spread of poppies amongst the crops. As we picked our way along our route, we aimed to drop back into the village through that valley but just missed it by coming off the hills too early. However, we decided to head back up and were rewarded with the best view of poppies I’ve ever had.

As we walked up the slope a natural spectacular revealed itself to us. The upper part of shallow valley’s slope was covered in wild plants including various sorts of orchid. We found marbled white butterflies feeding on thistle flowers and numerous skylarks sang above our heads under the changing patchwork sky of clear blue and cloud. As we reached the top of the hill, we looked down into a wide open-ended bowl and a mass sweep of poppies spread down the slope, across the field and into neighbouring plots. The skylarks were joined in their songs by whitethroats and yellowhammers, all around us and across the valley, flying and calling, was a great congregation of red kites, at least 15 but perhaps more than 20. We walked up and down the path, stopping to take a few pictures, watching and listening, as the wildlife made the scene complete. As we prepared to leave and wander back down the hill, a couple of swifts sped past on their flickering wings, completing a quintessentially English summer scene.

A digital connection into a wild world

Writing through a digital window on the valley, it is only the eyes than can sense the changes along the Glaslyn. The trees are now in full flush with their leaves turning from the almost luminous spring shock of bright new life to deeper, firmer, more solid greens. Amongst them stand the dead, the bone-white bleached trunks and branches of the lifeless trees, where leaves no longer flourish, but providing perches for some and homes for others. The fields and meadows are drying out after months of relentless rain; they are turning from sodden and saturated mud to lush spreads of sustaining grass. Feeding across them are ewes with lambs, the youngsters no longer so small but not so grown up to stop chasing each other around.

In the woodlands, all the spring arrivals are breeding with the willow warblers, chiffchaffs, redstarts and pied flycatcher raising broods amongst the branches of the moss covered oaks. The year-round residents also have young to feed with the tits, finches and thrushes all busy gathering the next mouthfuls for their chicks. Down on the ground, the mammals are raising their young with the foxes and badgers bringing their cubs out into the open at dusk.

An early summer has reached the Glaslyn Valley, hotter temperatures than many a July or August day are in place of the more gradual incline to the year’s peak. The sun, now not far off its strongest, casts a harsh light across the land and sends burning heat on any unshaded skin or feather. The smaller creatures can hide under branch or leaf, in concealed nests or under ground but some are less fortunate. When the cloud moves from the path of the sun, the osprey parents stand as shade over their chicks. The young have lost their down, exposing dark skins that attract even more of the sun’s heat. But the heat won’t last forever, and the frequent inclement weather can soon return, with the parents then shading the chicks from the monotonous dripping of rain onto their unfeathered bodies.

The wild year keeps moving on, even as our lives are partly dormant, keeping inside and away from many of our usual haunts. For many it is currently only a digital window that provides sights of nature and wildness; those in cities, in the middle of towns, or just with no view of green spaces. I’ve been watching the webcam. From the arrival of the familiar Glaslyn pair and the first egg laid, the chasing of crows and warning off intruders, to the hatching of the chicks, the never ending supply of fish and the youngsters’ continuing growth as remarkable speeds. The webcam really does give a window into a wild world, and a view that even in normal times, would be impossible to get without technology.

The Glaslyn nest is not the only site I’ve been keeping tracks on. I’ve been watching a white-tailed eagle family in Estonia and their enormous chicks, and I’ve been following a few African webcams in place of the trip in September now postponed for a year. Even if I’m not seeing the wildlife with my own eye, digital views are far better than having no views at all. It’s simply incredible what we can now all see from the comfort of our sofas or desks (even when working – sometimes)

It looks like this year, I’m only going to get that digital view of the ospreys. As things stand, I’m remaining in London for the continuing lockdown and there’s no sign of an opportunity to return home to Cheshire. Even if there was, the differing rules between England and Wales currently prevent any journey across the border, even just for the day. However, I’m fortunate that there is wildlife right on my lockdown doorstep. We have a crow visiting our balcony as he feeds his chicks and we often have sight of foxes, even a cub, as they start their evening patrols through the uncommonly deserted streets. On the walks and cycles around Kew and Richmond, I have now seen or heard over seventy species of bird including some I rarely observe: hobby, common tern, nightingale and green woodpecker. I’m also so lucky that this part of London is green and so much open space, the now reopened Botanic Gardens, the nearby green, the Thames Path and a little further away, the wide expanse of Richmond Park. However, these are not wild places and its difficult to get away, even now, from people and their noise. 

So much has already been said about the positive impact of nature on our minds as we wrestle with the stresses caused by the current situation. Without the good weather we have had for so long and the sights of wildlife, many, including me, would have found this so much harder to contend with. Any chance to see wildlife, even digitally, gives us a the stronger connection to the natural world we all need, particularly at times like these.

The seasons don’t stand still

As we are paused in our lives, hunkered down indoors, outside nature isn’t following us. The weather appears to have turned, from the seemly endless months of gloom and rain, to the past week which has been bright, cloudless and, occasionally, almost warm. The world is starting to react to these longer, lighter days with the earliest spring flowers coming and going, and the trees showing the first signs of leaves breaking out from their buds. The ground is drying out from the winter downpours and grass is coming into its first flushes of vibrant green. 

The birds are also reacting, with the residents building up their choruses at dawn and dusk, waiting for the spring arrivals to increase the depth of the music. The blackbirds, thrushes, robins, wrens and dunnocks will soon be joined by the warblers, redstarts, flycatchers and cuckoos, bringing greater intensity to the wave of calls washing across the fields and through the woods. 

The Glaslyn Valley always seems to be later to react to the coming of the new season, the plants and trees staying in their winter dormancy while other areas are well into their growth. However, we have noted the biggest sign of the coming of spring, the arrival at the top of that copse on the rocky outcrop in the wet meadowlands; the first osprey has landed in her nest and awaits the arrival of her parter.

Under current circumstances, I have no idea when I might been able to travel from my Cheshire home for my first shift of the protecting that osprey nest. For the duration of the lockdown, however long it lasts, I’m living in Kew, across the road from the famous botanic gardens, with a view over the wall from a second floor flat. Whilst there are no ospreys to be seen out of the window, we have our own nest to watch; a pair of magpies are setting up home in a tree only a few metres from our balcony. They’ve been noisily constructing their shaggy nest over past weeks and now seem to be getting on with the business of mating. We assume very we’ll only see one at once as the eggs are incubated.

Whilst Kew doesn’t have the rugged views of the Glaslyn’s natural landscape, it does have it’s visual charms. At present the cherry blossom is out and many of the streets are lined with trees slowly shedding their white and pink confetti petals.

Sunrise over the marshes

On the train to Birmingham this morning and was cheered by this lovely sunrise. I was just approaching Stafford and crossing Doxey Marshes as the sun first peaked above the horizon.

After the rain over the last few months, the marshes are looking even wetter than usual.

I just looked at the map to check the name of the location and learnt two things: it should be Sowford, not Stafford, and there’s a waterway in the Marshes called The Darling. Every day is a school day!

A return to Norfolk in January

At the end of last month (I’m getting behind with my blog writing!), we had a long weekend on the north Norfolk coast, staying in the lovely village of Blakeney. This is the second year in a row that I have taken a long January weekend in this Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty – it’s the perfect place to spend an early-year few days outdoors surrounded by nature.

Blakeney itself is a stunning little harbour village, about three kilometres from the sea up the River Glaven. The village is typical of this part of Norfolk with it’s few streets lined by flint-faced cottages. Our retreat for the weekend was a cottage in the old granary on the river front with great views across the wide and open salt marshes.

The two and a half days were spent walking along beaches, across the marshes and around some of the best nature reserves I know. This time of year on the north Norfolk coast is full of winter bird life with their sounds an almost constant accompaniment to any time spent outdoors. The richness of the wildlife is revealed by the figures; in just those short days in the area, we saw 80 different species and some huge flocks of wintering geese and ducks. 

Over the weekend we went to the coast at Holkham, had two visits to RSPB Titchwell, walked from Blakeney to Cley and back again, walked around the Norfolk Wildlife Trust site at Cley and made a dusk visit to the steep pebble beach at Weybourne. Through each of these places we saw a great amount of wildlife; from the large flocks of wildfowl and waders, the geese being my favourite, to the smaller birds gathered together to forage in the dunes and fields. The best sights were of hundreds of scoter off the coast at Holkham, the pink-footed geese in the fields alongside the main road, the flock of snow buntings behind the Holkham dunes, the mixed flock of curlew and ruff near to Cley, the dusk gathering of marsh harriers at Titchwell, and the hares running down and across a darkened back road.  

The place is so rich in life that I yearn for a winter day wandering the area and I’m never in doubt that I will return many times again.