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.

RSPB Leighton Moss

Yesterday we headed up to north Lancashire for an afternoon at the RSPB’s Leighton Moss reserve. After what has seemed like a never ending streak of gloomy days (or have I just spent too long in the office, far from natural light), it was a relief to be outside on a fabulously sunny day, even if there was a distinct chill in the air.

The reserve, nestled on a floodplain between the low hills of the Arnside & Silverdale AONB, is a patchwork of large lakes and reedbeds close to the shores of Morecambe Bay. The network of trails and hides puts you right in the middle of the reserve, giving great chances to see a whole range of wildlife from many different vantage points. Since my last visit, a new tower has been installed, giving visitors a view across the whole reserve.

Being a wetland reserve in winter, the lakes were the home to a large number of water birds with a good variety of ducks, geese and egrets. The tree-lined edges to the reserve were also good for woodland species with a good range of tits in particular seen during our five hours.

The day ended with a dusk spectacular with a murmuration of tens of thousands of starlings swirling above the reserve. We started to think it wouldn’t happen as the darkness descended and no birds had been seen. However, what began with a single bird, then a group of five, eventually became great rivers of starlings passing over our heads as they came in from spending the day foraging inland. Before they made their funnelling plummet to their nocturnal roosts, there was a mass of life swirling and waving over the reedbeds. It was just a pity the main body of the murmuration was a good few hundred metres away, but I still managed to get a bit of video…

Ramsey Island 2019 – Week 4

This week we’ve had some fantastic weather with Tuesday being particularly wonderful. I woke up early to go out to take some more dawn photos and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky and barely any noticeable wind. This lasted much of the day and we had a lovely sunset to finish it off. I woke yesterday morning to rain and we need some more of the wet stuff, the Island’s grass is looking very dry compared to the fields across the Sound on the mainland.

I did all my usual tasks this week including helping with the boats and doing most of the introductory talks. I also finished off the oystercatcher survey and we started another round of chough watches. Now is the time for the chough chicks to hatch and we spent an hour at each of the nine chough nest locations monitoring and recording the activity. With both adults coming and going, and wiping their bills after leaving the nests, it was clear that many of the nests had chicks within them. However, there always seem to be one or two locations where more than one visit is required to check exactly what is happening.

Later in the week, I spent two afternoon’s supporting an exhibition in St David’s of paintings of Ramsey Island by David Cowdry to mark 25 years since the RSPB bought the island. The exhibition did very well, with at least half of the paintings sold and a significant sum raised for projects on the island.

I spent my day off visiting locations further up the coast from St David’s and had walks to St David’s Head and Aber Mawr. I can see St David’s Head from my bedroom and it was great to get another angle from which to look at the island. Aber Mawr was a bit of a revelation; it has a lovely pebbley beach with a fabulous old woodland behind. The woods were full of bird song and wildflowers, and I don’t think I have ever seen so many big ferns growing in a British woodland setting. I also saw my first sand martins of the year and the beach has a colony on its sandy cliff. After the visit to Aber Mawr, I went up to Strumble Head to do a spot of sea watching. There were loads of gannets flying around the area with many making their dramatic dives into the sea. Breaching the surface constantly were groups of both porpoise and bottle-nosed dolphin. The three stops during the day were interspersed with drives down high-banked country lanes with wild flowers in numbers I haven’t seen any where else. All-in-all, I had a great day exploring the North Pembrokeshire coast.

As the week came to an end, the volunteers changed again with both Steve and Chris leaving and four new ones coming on; Peter and Linda, and Dave and Sonia. It suddenly struck me that I really am here for quite some time and that for long term volunteers the Bungalow feels different to how it does for a short term volunteer (which I usually am). Being here for three months, routines are more developed, ways of doing things more set in and, generally, the place feels even more like ‘home’; my home, rather than everyone’s. So when new people come in, this all gets a little disrupted, and one could feel a little put out, no matter how lovely and well-intentioned the other volunteers all are. So, next time I come as a short-term volunteer, I will try a little harder to be more considerate to the long-term residents, especially if is their first stay here. 

A first trip of the year

On the 2nd January I had my first trip out of the year and visited the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust’s Martin Mere Reserve. I’ve been visiting the reserve for many years and usually make a trip in the autumn to see the large flicks of pink-footed geese that pass through on the way to their main wintering grounds in north Norfolk. However, largely due to the amount of weekend working I did over the autumn, I missed that chance and this was the first time I’ve been for well over a year.

The weather was cold but very bright and a big change from the recent mild but gloomy stuff we’ve been having and it made the visit all the better for it. There was plenty of wildlife on show as I walked between the various hides from one end of the reserve to the other. I saw over 40 different species; perhaps not the most comprehensive list for the site and I’m sure I would have seen more had I stuck around longer. However, the best sights of the day were a barn owl hunting in daylight and three distant marsh harriers.

Of particular note was the relatively low number of whooper swans. It might just have been the particular day but there were only around 800 present when at this time of year previously I might have seen double that figure. I also learnt that the number of Pink-footed geese that passed through in the autumn was lower than usual. I suspect this may simply be down to the mild weather we have had over the autumn and winter so far and the birds are staying further north. However, there is a bread in me that there is more to this.

Towards the end of the day, I made a quick visit to RSPB Hesketh Outmarsh to see if there was much about. Whilst is was quiet I did get a nice sunset…